Skip to comments.Creches at center of debate--PARK PC'D BY GRINCHES
Posted on 12/18/2006 9:00:16 AM PST by SJackson
December 18, 2006 -- A Westchester grandfather called Briarcliff Manor officials "grinches" yesterday after they not only refused to put up a Nativity scene in a village park - but took down all holiday symbols that were already there.
Henry Ritell, 80, sued the village to force it to install the Nativity scene, which he had purchased, in Law Park, where a menorah and a tree decorated with Christmas lights were standing.
On Friday, a federal judge ruled in his favor.
He instructed the village to either remove the menorah, "a symbol of Jewish faith," or include Ritell's Nativity scene.
(Excerpt) Read more at nypost.com ...
A devout Roman Catholic, Henry Ritell offered to buy a creche to provide true balance for Briarcliff Manor's holiday display.
But village officials said no thanks. So this month, Ritell sued the village in federal court. And late Friday, a federal judge ruled in Ritell's favor.
But there will be no creche in a village park. The village took down its holiday display yesterday.
"I'm not anti-menorah," said Ritell, 80, who works in international marketing and always finds a Catholic Mass in his travels. "I don't want to see anything taken down. I just want equality. That's why I offered to buy the creche."
Conflicts like the one in Briarcliff Manor are playing out across the country as Christians and their advocacy groups push for Nativity scenes to be included in public holiday displays as true symbols of Christmas. The crux of their argument is often that the Christmas tree is a cultural symbol with pagan roots and that a creche is required to balance a menorah's religious meaning.
But calls for creches are causing great anxiety for many public officials who are left to study a confusing body of federal case law on religious displays. They often wind up trying to weigh the relative meaning of the different symbols.
"Is a menorah more of a religious symbol than a Christmas tree? Is a creche a greater religious symbol than a menorah?" Briarcliff Manor Village Manager Michael Blau asked before the decision was announced. "What is the balance?"
In recent months, four public bodies have dealt with requests to display Nativity scenes in different ways:
- Briarcliff Manor, which plans to appeal the court decision, took down its display and put up a sign stating, "The Village erected a Menorah and Christmas tree display in a spirit of inclusion. In response to a federal court order the entire display has been removed. We disagree with the court."
- The Nyack Public Library turned down a creche donation and decided not to display any holiday symbols this year, except for an unadorned tree.
- The Town of Bedford OK'd the inclusion of a creche in a holiday display outside town hall. But the resident who volunteered the Nativity scene says it took three years of delays and the involvement of a Christian public interest law firm before he got the approval.
- The Yorktown school board turned down a donation of Nativity scenes for holiday displays at each elementary school, and revised its policy to clarify the difference between religious and cultural symbols.
The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport received national attention this month when it removed 14 Christmas trees rather than display a menorah, a decision that was later reversed. But this was an "old-school" conflict in that the inclusion of a Nativity scene, the focus of most holiday display confusion these days, did not come up.
The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a public interest firm that defends Christian interests, has been urging Christians to ask for Nativity scenes to be included in public holiday displays. It recently arranged for a lawyer to address the Bedford Town Board.
"A Christmas tree is not good enough because we are not celebrating the birth of an evergreen tree," said Brian Rooney, spokesman for the center. "We decided to go on the offensive this year. A lot of cities and townships are confused about the law and afraid to do anything. They sometimes think that a menorah is more secular, but that a creche is overtly religious and will get you in trouble."
The U.S. Supreme Court during the 1980s narrowly supported community holiday displays that gather several symbols, including one display with a creche. The court also offered that a menorah can be considered a religious or cultural symbol.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor set a subjective - some say confusing - test of whether a "reasonable observer" would see a display as endorsing one religion over others.
"In short, a well-placed Santa and reindeer could save a creche from being removed from the village square by a federal court," said a synopsis of the current case law by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
But lower federal courts have gone in different directions. Early this year, for instance, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a New York City schools policy that bars Nativity scenes from holiday displays.
Deborah Lauter, civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, said that each holiday display has to be considered individually to discern if one religion is being favored or endorsed.
"We don't want to be Grinches," she said. "Let the schools and everyone else celebrate with trees, wreaths, reindeer. From our viewpoint, a creche is such a sectarian symbol, we would prefer not to see it in public schools."
The Supreme Court has not dealt with the question of holiday displays in public schools specifically.
Nativity scenes are not always controversial. When the Rockland County Catholic Coalition put one up Thursday in front of Rockland County offices, County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef took part.
But many public officials are leery of seeing the birthplace of Jesus - with the Virgin Mary, the Three Wise Men, the Star of Bethlehem, etc. - represented on public grounds.
Thomas Kiley, 41, decided to donate a creche for the Town of Bedford's holiday display after seeing a notice for an upcoming menorah lighting there. He insists that it took almost three years of delays before the board approved the creche last month. The key, he said, was the Thomas More Law Center sending a lawyer to explain his rights.
"I'm no Scrooge, but I think there should be nothing there except a wreath on the door of Town Hall, clean and green," said Kiley, who runs a photo shop in Katonah. "But if there's a menorah, there should be a creche. I went in front of the town board and they said the menorah is not religious. But it is."
Bedford Supervisor Lee Roberts said that Kiley only requested the creche this year and that the board was willing to oblige as soon as it also got requests to include a tree and menorah.
"The courts have said a creche can be included with other symbols," she said. "His request was tabled, not denied, until we got the other applications. Supervisors everywhere are trying to walk the line on this."
Kiley erected his Nativity scene Friday, but disputes Roberts' willingness to go along.
Edward FitzPatrick, 76, of Orangetown, a Roman Catholic, said he does not think a menorah is comparable to a Christmas tree.
"A menorah is a religious symbol and a Christmas tree is a cultural symbol," said FitzPatrick, who met with the Nyack Library Board this year to make his case for donating a creche to his favorite library's holiday display. "A creche is, for Christians, an historical representation of what occurred."
Two months ago, the board turned him down and decided to prohibit all religious symbols.
"The issue is whether Americans of a religious persuasion have the right to have their historical events represented in the public square," said FitzPatrick, a retired school principal and college professor.
Library Director James Mahoney said a library has to be neutral.
"The board decided we would no longer allow any religious symbols in order to not allow for the appearance of promoting one symbol over another," he said.
The Yorktown school board this year turned down resident Tony Grasso's offer of a creche for each elementary school holiday display. Grasso, 78, wanted to see them alongside menorahs, plastic trees and Kwanzaa candleholders.
The board revised its policy to differentiate between religious symbols that can't be displayed and "holiday cultural symbols" that can be. The policy says that a menorah with candles or lights is religious, but one without lights is a cultural symbol.
"We know it's a sticky topic and some people want to back off from everything because they're afraid to offend," said school board member Karen Corrado. "We wanted to give our staff some guidance."
The meaning of the nine-candle Hanukkah menorah - actually called a hanukiyah - is at the heart of many conflicts about holiday displays. What does it mean? It represents the eight days of Hanukkah, harkens back to the Jews reclaiming of the Second Temple from the Greeks and commemorates a miracle of legend - a small amount of oil burning for eight days.
"It can be an historical symbol, commemorating an event, a nationalist symbol in connection to historical events, or a religious symbol," said David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "According to the Talmud, you're supposed to put these oil lamps outside your door where people walk by to advertise the miracle. That's a religious symbol."
Grasso wrote a letter to the school board last week, offering to donate creches for educational use in classrooms. He also noted the acceptance of menorahs without lights.
"Why not a Nativity Scene without 'Baby Jesus' alongside the Menorah?" he wrote.
How was this different then the crazy rabbi who was going to sue in Seattle to either take down the Christmas trees or put up the menorah?
Just asking, not trying to be facetious.
A Menorah is a JEWISH RELIGIOUS SYMBOL OF HANUKKAH which is needed to CELEBRATE the holiday. A Nativity scene should be set up where there is a Menorrah. A Dreidel can be set up where there is a Christmas tree.
It's exactly the same. Couldn't he have found a church yard or private property for the creche? Same for the Menorah.
I'd say the Christmas tree is a Christmas symbol, but not a religious one. It's not a "pagan" symbol anymore, but neither does it commemorate the birth of Christ.
I think the trees, lights, wreaths and decorations on public property are more aimed at making a festive atmosphere to encourage shopping, not exactly the meaning of Christmas (or Hanukkah either).
The town govt was correct. The fellow, well meaning, just like the rabbi at the airport, should have left well enough alone. Let the tree represent joy Christmas, and let the menorah represent the celebration of miracle of Hanukkah.
The Rabbi never asked for the generic Holiday Trees (Sea-Tac's name) to be taken down, he wanted them up, but he wanted a Menorah too.
See the link in 6, the courts will likely disagree. Both Menorah and Christmas tree have both secular and religious significane, to the courts, much depends on the nature of the display. If you're going to display a Menorah, you likely have to display a creche.
I missed the part in the constitution that says that if the government buys the land, the people no longer have religious freedom on it.
As a frumie, I have no problem with other's faith and I don't want to deprive Christians of their creches.
I JUST WISH THE JEWISH MEN IN THE NATIVITY DISPLAYS HAD THEIR HEADS COVERED LIKE JEWS.
I'M TIRED OF JESUS ET AL BEING PORTAYED AS ARYAN CAVIEZAL,VON SYDOW TYPES!!!!!!!!!
I SEE MY NEIGHBORS CRECHE AND I FELL LIKE PUTTING A KIPA ON THE JOSEPH FIGURE!
PERHAPS YOU SHOULD SEND HIM A THOUGHTFUL, SENSITIVE LETTER IN ALL CAPS EXPLAINING YOUR FEELINGS TO HIM.
Never thought of that.
What is a "frumie"?
Never thought about it, but I guess you would be right about the head covering.
I sure would hate to see that crescent and moon on the village square for the whole month of Ramadan.
Don't think I should have to. Think that "make no law respecting an establishment of religion" should cover me on that.
It should also protect non-Christians from having to tolerate a Nativity scene in front of town hall all of December.
I said the same thing about the menorah.
When the community tolerates municipal displays of religious symbols that's fine. If it becomes contentious, I think local government should follow the lead of the SeaTac folks and move them all off public property.
I want more than a Christmas tree to represent the joy of Christmas. Jesus' birth is the joy of Christmas and Christians have every right to have their symbol displayed along with a menorah. I am sick and tired of this nonsense. Jesus Christ is the reason for the season and Christians should fight for this.
Frum: adhering to Jewish halacha
Frumie:Obsevant Orthodox Jewish person
I've also heard people refer to other religious folk as being Frum- i.e.religious Catholic as frum Catholics.
Yes. No. IMHO.
Is the "public square" a place where all people have equal access, or nobody has any access?
Should we ban every symbol of any kind from the public square, or just the religious symbols? How about war statues? What if it's a statue of General Lee in Richmond, Va.? How about a Che Guevera plaque?
I can tolerate just about anything that isn't purposely rude, offensive, or obscene. If we have a pluralistic society, and we embrace the idea of individual liberty and choice, I don't have a problem with having my eyes sullied by the sight of a Menorah, or a Crescent, or even a Buddha statue -- so long as my tax dollars don't pay for ANY of them.
I oppose tax dollars for Nativity Scenes. Nobody should have to worry about their tax dollars going to a display that conveys a religious message.
What I REALLY don't want is the Supreme Court of the United States "Establishing religion" by having an official government proclamation of what things are "religious", and what are simply "historical". What could be more offensive than the government telling you that YOUR religion isn't really a religion, while someone else's religion is TRUE and therefore must be censored?
The last thing I wanted is to be allowed to display the 10 commandments because "they aren't really religious".
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