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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Religion, Holidays, and the Establishment Clause

As we discuss in chapter 5 (civic culture) and chapter 6 (civil liberties), many questions arise under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which bans government from "respecting an establishment of religion.” These questions often become prominent during the December holiday season. A new Rasmussen poll summarizes public opinion on the topic:

Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of allowing religious symbols to be displayed on public land and feel even more strongly that public schools should celebrate at least some religious holidays.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 76% of adults believe religious symbols like Christmas Nativity scenes, Hanukkah menorahs and Muslim crescents should be allowed on public land. Just 13% disagree, and another 10% are undecided.

Eighty-three percent (83%) believe public schools should celebrate religious holidays. This figure includes 47% who think the schools should celebrate all religious holidays and another 36% who believe they should only celebrate some. The question did not single out which holidays should be celebrated and which should be excluded.

Only 14% think the public schools should not celebrate any religious holidays.

Today, Philadelphia has a Chunukah parade. The Jewish Exponent reports:

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in County of Allegheny v. Pittsburgh [1989] that menorahs could be placed on government property because they have "attained secular status in our society."

But what about mobile ones? There's no constitutional issue raised there, according to Jeffrey Pasek, an expert on the establishment clause who chairs the church-state committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network.

A parade constitutes a limited and temporary use of public space and couldn't be mistaken for a government endorsement of religion, explained Pasek.