Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Attack of the Grinch

A new correspondent writes:

I am a new department chair. The staff love to decorate for any and
all holidays. Recently they have put up the tree, tinsel and various
other baubles. One of my faculty members has objected to the
"religious" decorating. I am aware that the supreme court ruled that
the tree is not a religious symbol and the staff haven't put up angels
or anything of that sort. However, I am sympathetic to the complaint.
What would you do?

It's a great question, and I hate it.

I hate it because it's no-win, at least at a public institution. (Sectarian schools have an advantage here.) You're supposed to protect both free speech and free exercise of religion, but not 'establish' a religion. So what do you do when underlings decorate in ways that are obviously, if indirectly, related to a distinctly Christian holiday? Do you stifle their free expression to avoid seeming to endorse their view, or do you allow their free expression and seem indirectly to endorse it?

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

As far as I know, there's no graceful and elegant way around this one.* There are, though, some reasonably tolerable, slightly weaselly ways.

One is to keep out specifically religious content, and instead focus on winter themes. Snowflakes, snowmen, sleigh bells, etc. It snows on the just and the unjust alike, so focusing on snow and suchlike is pretty safe. (Of course, this works better in Northern climes. In, say, Los Angeles, I don't know how that would go over. "Let it smog, let it smog, let it smog?") "Jingle Bells" and "Let it Snow" are safer than, say, "Silent Night."

Or you can do the old 'big tent' approach, and lump Christmas in with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, New Year's, and anything else you can find. (Bizarrely, nobody ever throws in Saturnalia.) This was the logic behind "Happy Holidays," before the Republicans declared that this was part of a secret liberal war on Christmas. Now some of them think themselves rebels for saying "Merry Christmas." I consider the 'war on Christmas' thesis bizarre, even by Republican standards, but I'll concede that the big tent approach is little more than a convenient compromise.

(Another variation of the big tent approach is to celebrate every little holiday that comes up all year long. Little groundhogs for Groundhog's Day, patriotic displays for the Fourth of July, etc. This would be fine if there wasn't work to do. Besides, there's always an argument. If you celebrate Christmas, why not Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan? If you celebrate St. Patrick's Day, why not Cinco de Mayo or Bastille Day? The tent will never be big enough.)

The Supreme Court has issued a mind-bending series of decisions on this sort of thing, generating much heat but little light. I don't put much stock in trying to parse every last decision, since the current Court doesn't seem overly concerned with precedent, and many of the 'tests' they use are pretty useless in practice. Besides, even if you correctly find the sweet spot in the existing decisions, there's nothing to keep the Court from issuing yet another decision just to complicate things. Lawyers live for that sort of thing. And I wouldn't trust something as sensitive as religion to a Court that could issue a decision like Bush vs. Gore.

Rather than spending my time on angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin exegesis of Court cases, I'd sit down and talk with the staffers. Remind them that the workplace is a diverse setting, including people of different faiths and no faiths at all, and that everybody -- including visitors -- has to feel welcome. And if that doesn't work, remind them that it's a workplace and not a church or a private home. It doesn't need to be sterile, but it can't be home away from home. That may seem cold to the true believers, but I prefer to think of it as something like fairness.

Some of them will think you're the Grinch, and will say so behind your back. Stand your ground. Some of us suspect that the best hope for lasting peace on earth and goodwill towards men and women starts with fairness.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a graceful way to handle this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

*"The Christians and the Pagans," by Dar Williams, comes close.