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Religious Freedom is for Everyone-Not just Minorities

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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Well, 2004 has arrived which means that dreaded "C word" is behind us. Put politely, "the holiday season" has passed. Having shopped in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle lately and having listened to talk radio in each city I couldn't help noticing a startling double standard.

Overwhelmingly, store assistants and talk radio hosts bid farewell to Jewish guests with a cheerful "Happy Chanukah" while others, including those identified as Christians, received the generic "Happy holidays." With each passing year, secular fundamentalism more successfully injects into American culture the notion that the word "Christmas" is deeply offensive. Well, after watching this year's repeat of the annual "hate Christianity ritual" I think we may be mistaken in allowing this assault to go unchallenged.

Okay, maybe referring to it as a "hate Christianity ritual" is a little over the top. But it certainly is obsequious regard for faiths like Judaism and even Islam, while treating Christianity with contempt and disrespect. It is not that I want Judaism treated with less respect it is just that I think that Christianity deserves just as much respect. And I say this as an Orthodox rabbi who has spent a lifetime teaching Torah and devoting myself to the long term interests of Judaism.

I don't think that America's Jewish community does itself any long term good by denouncing every public expression of Christian faith as if it were a force-fed dose of castor oil. This anti-Christianism is not only unhealthy for all Americans; I think it is particularly destructive for Jews to be leading the extirpation of all signs of Christian fervor from the village square.

Palm Beach, Florida, prohibited a Christian group from placing a depiction of Christ in the manger alongside a menorah on public property. One of the plaintiffs, Maureen Donnell, told Fox News, "They've discriminated against us, they allow the menorahs but they have absolutely no interest in these Nativity scenes." Donnell and her co-plaintiff want the menorah and the Nativity scene to be displayed next to each other. But Palm Beach officials remained unmoved. Today, Palm Beach is a city with a large Jewish population. It would be wonderful to be able to believe that Palm Beach's Jews fought as valiantly for Christian religious rights as they have had to do in the past for their own.

Many Jewish parents, who remain indifferent when their children bop to rap music's obscene lyrics, recoil in horror at the same kids' exposure to Christmas carols. It is invariably a local rabbi who teams up with the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the school singing carols or the town unwary enough to allow a Nativity scene on the library lawn.

A music teacher in a Washington school removed the "C word" from the lyrics in Dale Wood's "Carol from an Irish Cabin" to read: "The harsh wind blows down from the mountains and blows a white winter to me."

Parent Darla Dowell, whose 7-year-old daughter sang the song, called the decision "absurd." "I think the most important thing that angers me is that they sent a message to my child that there's something wrong with Christmas and saying Christmas and celebrating it and performing it at her school with her peers," Dowell told Fox News. She couldn't understand why it's okay to exclude Christmas when her daughter was forced to sing Hanukkah tunes that included lyrics about the "mighty miracle" of Israel's ancient days. In that song, there were at least six mentions of the Jewish holiday.

Although I suppose it is possible, does anyone feel confident that Mrs. Dowell will think better of Jews in 2004 than she did in 2003? How exactly does this aggressively applied double standard help to maintain the mutual respect that used to characterize the relations between American Jews and Christians?

A 1989 Supreme Court decision in Allegheny County v. ACLU found a Nativity scene on the main staircase of the county courthouse to be unconstitutional. The court emphasized that the privately owned crèche which included a banner proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" ("Glory to God in the Highest") was indisputably religious. In the same case, however, a five-judge majority found that a nearby display, featuring an 18-foot Hanukkah menorah did not violate the Establishment Clause. In the interests of truth and friendship, it ought to be the entire Jewish community protesting the court's actions. Instead, in a bizarre inversion of truth, many of us Jews triumph at Christianity's suppression as if we had just replayed the two millennia-old victory of the Macabees against secularism.

Holiday greeting cards also demonstrate this syndrome quite well. Don't take my word for it, step up to the greeting card racks in your local drug store and see what I mean. Virtually every Chanukah card is tasteful, well okay, deferential at least. Similarly, every Kwanza card is a paper paean to this rootless, recent invention. Cards intended for blacks and Jews are respectful. No sir, you won't find too many cards taking vulgar, humorous shots at those holidays.

Now check out the Christmas cards. Oh sorry, I should have said "check out the holiday cards" or "check out the winter season cards." You'll be hard pressed to even find a card that mentions the word "Christmas." It is as if word is deemed so offensive that casual card browsers should be protected from accidental contamination. Alongside the decent cards you'd expect, you will also find tasteless Christmas cards that mock the holiday. You'll even find off-color risqué Christmas cards that you'd be embarrassed to be caught looking at. What secularism seems to be saying is, if we can't completely banish Christmas, let's at least turn it into a bad joke.

New York City schools encourage their students to bring decorations that reflect Judaism and Islam but Christian decorations are prohibited. Yes, that is right. Holiday displays of the Jewish menorah and Islam's star and crescent are allowed in some 1,200 public schools in New York City, but the creche, or nativity display, are verboten. (The case is currently being heard in Federal Court in Brooklyn. The suit, which should have been brought in a spirit of brotherhood by a Jewish organization, doesn't seek to prohibit the Jewish and Muslim exhibits, but to end discrimination against Christianity.) Nationwide, Christmas Nativity scenes are banned from city halls and shopping malls but Chanukah menorah's are permitted. (They are only cultural symbols, not religious, you see.) Seattle city employees are prohibited from wishing one another a merry Christmas but permitted to say "Happy Holidays" or even, "Happy Chanukah".

The storm troopers of secularism who so diligently guard the rest of us from inadvertent exposure to the Christmas virus can rest for another year. Their work is done for now, but right after Thanksgiving, they'll be back, you'll see. Hey! I have a great idea-this year, let's be ready for 'em.

Copyright © 2004 Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Rabbi Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, a Seattle-based, bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation's survival.

Read this article on the Toward Tradition website. Reprinted with permission.

1/3/04



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