Thursday, December 21, 2006

For God's Sake

[posted by Callimachus]

Why is this so hard?

OLYMPIA -- Holiday trees are a longtime tradition in the rotunda of the Washington state Capitol, and this week the governor also lit a menorah.

Now a Nativity scene has been ruled out on the advice of the state attorney general's office.

It's the latest permutation of this story -- the Seattle-Tacoma airport Christmas tree flap. It's also the latest example of what you get when you let a country be run by agendas that can afford lawyers.

At the airport, a rabbi saw a plastic Christmas tree display and asked to place a menorah next to it. My reading of what happened next is that the airport managers might have been OK with that, but they also realized granting the request would mean they'd have to let anyone put up any sort of religious display there, or else be guilty of discrimination.

So instead, they pulled the trees. Then the pundits let loose the Dogs of War on Christmas, and so a deal was cut: The rabbi agreed not to sue, and the trees came back.

The same rabbi earlier had convinced Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to install, and personally light, a menorah in the statehouse rotunda. You can guess what happened next.

A local real estate agent saw the menorah and asked to place a creche next to it. The state turned him down.

Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the Department of General Administration, officials were concerned that in comparison with a tree or menorah, a Nativity scene might carry a stronger impression of government endorsement of religion.

Unlike, say, the governor lighting a public menorah in the capitol rotunda.

Forget for a minute the First Amendment; this is about civil society in a multicultural nation, as we inescapably are and always have been. This is family.

A private entity can do as it pleases. But the government's buildings are everyone's house. Yet in this case the airport managers saw something the state's lawyers missed: The one thing you can't do is play favorites with religions. And in a diverse nation, that forces you into the unhappy corner of "all or nothing." It's the elementary school talent show: Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, or no one does. Which probably is why public life in the U.S. so often resembles an elementary school musical.

Embrace it all or ignore it all. If you're a government, probably wisest to ignore it all and thereby encourage it to flourish on its own. The government's hand has the Midas touch when it reaches out toward religion.

Personally I can't wait to get off work and go light the Rastafarian menorah.