December 13, 2012
Reason in the Season? Rationality and the Difficulty of Religious Neutrality
— Matthew R. Petrusek
With the advent of the Holiday Season comes the annual resurgence of the religious neutrality debate. The dispute, as familiar as it is intractable, concerns the question of whether Christmas symbols—including not only mangers, swaddled babies, and pious-faced statuettes, but also wreaths, lights, and decorated trees—belong in public spaces. The traditionalists argue that a small minority of individuals have prohibited any civic expression of an occasion that the vast majority of Americans celebrate. The other side, a potpourri of atheist and diversity-minded church-state separation advocates, respond that Christmas symbols on public property constitute an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. Both point to the First Amendment for backing: one emphasizes the "no law respecting of religion" clause, the other the no "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" clause.
The issue has long simmered at the cultural level, but, given the potential constitutional questions at stake, it has unsurprisingly also found its way to the courts. In a recent judgment in Santa Monica, CA, for example, a U.S. district court judge ruled against the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee by prohibiting any kind of private display, including nativity scenes, in a local public park, despite the group's dual appeal to both free expression and tradition—prior to the ruling, the booths celebrating Christmas had been erected every year without incident for decades. The loose coalition of atheist groups that catalyzed the issue is claiming victory. The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Commission plans to appeal.
These kinds of legal rulings and tit-for-tat recriminations of "intolerance" are not limited to Santa Monica. They have become a regular feature of the Holiday Season across the country, often sensationalized, to be sure, but no less problematic for that reason. What is the state to do?
One solution has been semantic: there has been a move to avoid controversy by using the adjective "Holiday" rather than "Christmas" for describing the festivities and adornments on public grounds around the date of December 25. In Rhode Island, for example, Governor Lincoln Chafee recently gained both praise and scorn for once again publicly describing the annual ceremony in the State House rotunda as a "Holiday Tree" lighting ceremony. Perhaps predictably, an otherwise uneventful flip of a switch ended up producing a wave of national editorials and cable-news commentary both criticizing and defending the Governor's choice of words.
There are at least two central issues here. One is whether the semantic move towards "Holiday" celebrations also marks a substantive move to genuine religious neutrality. If "neutral" means "not endorsing and/or denying the validity of any religious or non-religious belief" then the answer seems to be no. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example— a group who condemns all holidays not directly authorized by Jesus—would not find Mr. Chafee's solution to the problem of religious pluralism much of a solution at all. So at least from a practical standpoint, neutrality seems difficult to achieve insofar as any kind of state involvement with any event that could be construed as religious is bound to offend one group or another.
The deeper question remains, however, of whether religious neutrality is possible to achieve at all, no matter what kind of judicial or legislative ruling the state makes. The Constitutional scholar Steven D. Smith compellingly argues in his book Foreordained Failure that it is not. Describing what he calls the "Fundamental Conundrum," he writes, "The function of a theory of religious freedom is to mediate among a variety of competing religious and secular positions and interests...To perform that function, however, the theory will tacitly but inevitably privilege, or prefer in advance, one of those positions while rejecting or discounting others."
Smith's argument not only challenges the existence of a principle of genuine religious neutrality in The United States Constitution; it ultimately doubts the existence of such a principle in any constitution. Although Smith does not put the point precisely in this way, acting as a truly neutral arbiter would seem to require the state to appeal to a principle that everyone agrees to, not in the empirical sense, but, rather, in the rational sense—a standard that every person must necessarily see as true and thus only deny on pain of self-contradiction. Otherwise, it is unclear how the ruling or governing principle could truly be "neutral" to all parties involved in any given dispute, including ones over the presence of nativities on public lands or the proper name of illumined conical evergreens in statehouse rotundas.
Does such a principle ultimately exist? Perhaps. But until it is found and articulated more clearly, it is likely, unfortunately, that discord will continue to mark a season otherwise known for celebrating peace on earth.
Associated Press, "Santa Monica Nativity Scene Lawsuit Dismissed, Judge Urges Churches To Consider Other Options," The Huffington Post, November 30, 2012.
William McGurn, "A Lincoln Chafee Christmas," The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2012.
Smith, Steven. Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Matthew R. Petrusek is a PhD Candidate in Religious Ethics and Martin Marty Jr. Fellow at The University of Chicago Divinity School.