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A menorah is Jewish. A Christmas tree is – what?

In a recent article, a New York Post columnist went a bit overboard bemoaning the secularization of religious symbols at a time of rampant lawsuits.

In fact, her outrage at the renaming of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree – we all know it’s a Christmas tree! – now called simply “The Tree,” has overridden her good sense.

Fearing legal repercussions, she says, towns all over the country are canceling old chestnuts like Christmas parades and have tried to ban holiday items from holiday sales.

In fact, says Andrea Peyser – insensitively and inappropriately – “[T]he irrational fear of lawsuits has done more damage to holiday spirit than the Nazis did at Kristallnacht.”

That a woman who identifies herself as a Jew can utter such a statement both boggles the mind and misses the point.

The United States is a rich mosaic of cultures and religions, and it benefits us all to be exposed to them. Lawsuits have been targeted against specific abuses, for example, state funding and display of crèches on public property.

New Jersey, like all states, is still trying to figure out what is acceptable, and what isn’t. According to an article on FirstAmendment.org, the best advice would appear to be to “honor the year-end traditions of different religions without endorsing a particular ideology.”

What that means, exactly, is unclear, and William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, says his group is frequently called upon to offer guidance on the issue.

Municipal holiday displays that are limited to more secular images, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, are likely to survive constitutional scrutiny, he says. But it is still unclear when more religious symbols (crèches, menorahs, the Ten Commandments) may be displayed by a municipality or on municipal property.

One Jersey City holiday display survived a series of court challenges by including plastic figures of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, giving what one commentator called “sufficient secular cover” for the Nativity scene and Chanukah menorah. A more recent suit, brought by a parent in Maplewood, charged that the South Orange-Maplewood School District was violating the constitutional rights of his children by barring religious music.

Chances are, this debate will continue, as it should, in a democracy. In the meantime, we can have it all – lighting our menorahs and enjoying the lights on “The Tree” when we’re in Manhattan. Or not.

A happy and healthy Chanukah to all our readers.

L.G.

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