First, I guess we need to set aside what we mean by secular and religious; and from there decide what’s appropriate for a display in a public setting, such as a park, town halls and places of that nature.

The issue comes up year after year for any number of reasons.
Perhaps a nativity scene with a menorah next to it might not be acceptable because some feel that would be an endorsement of religion.

Perhaps there are those who feel the meaning of the holidays is being watered down by secularism and commercialism.

You name it…”Peace on Earth” this time of year is anything but peaceful.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with a public display of a nativity scene or a menorah on public grounds. I don’t feel the public entity is endorsing religion per se…rather, they’re expressing holiday greetings to the adherents of the various faiths.

However, each and every year the same issue rears its head. It may be fine for a public space to feature snowmen, reindeer, Santa, etc….but God-forbid you have a nativity scene, menorah, or any kind of religious symbol in a public space, and all hell breaks loose.

The issue has figured in two Supreme Court rulings as well as a New Jersey Appellate Division ruling.

This past week, a federal judge in California indicated she would deny a bid by local churches to force Santa Monica to open its public parks once again to private displays, including scenes of the Nativity, after a dispute last year between atheist groups and Christian communities.

In the 1980s, the Supreme Court decided that putting up holiday trees, reindeers, snowmen and Santa Claus doesn’t violate the First Amendment — barring religious favoritism — because such symbols are secular in nature.

The New Jersey ruling said religious symbols were allowed on public property as long as any group was allowed to participate.

In West Milford, the Township Council recently voted 4-2 to consider a proposal to open Township Hall to any group wishing to display religious symbols this holiday season.

The measure was proposed by Rabbi Mendy Gurkov, who wants to put up a menorah and hold a lighting ceremony with local officials to match the annual holiday tree and lighting ceremony.

The township has held a holiday tree lighting ceremony for about 50 years. Councilwoman Ada Erik, who voted against religious displays, said that the tree-lighting was never a Christian event. Putting up religious displays would be, she said, “taking away what it is: a tradition that’s just part of West Milford.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, a national atheist group, said that ideally government would stay out of the business of religion, especially because across the country, atheists are often excluded from participating in holiday displays.

But Eric Rassback, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, a group that wages legal efforts on behalf of all faiths, said that religious displays at any time of year should always be permitted on public property.

“Religious displays should not be treated on any different terms than non-religious displays,” Rassback said.
“It just gets a lot more attention this time of year because people are focusing on Christmas coming up,” he said.

Funny how that happens.

Christmas comes…”Peace on Earth”…all that, and yet anything but peace reigns.

And it’s not exclusive to North Jersey, for down in Pittman, a controversy could be brewing anew.

The flap over the public display of a religious Christmas banner continues in Pitman.


The Freedom From Religion Foundation, dedicated to protecting the separation of church and state, was not aware that the banner went back up Saturday morning, but "it remains problematic," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, an officer of the foundation in Madison, Wis.

"We have people there in Pitman who want to do something about it," Gaylor said, adding that a foundation lawyer had "been in touch with them all year."

Nonetheless, the Knights of Columbus hung the "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner early Saturday morning over the picturesque borough's main street, just as the Catholic fraternal organization does every year.

The banner is part of the Gloucester County town's annual Christmas festivities, including a parade that took place at 5 p.m. Saturday.

"We had no problem at all" putting the banner up, Mark Pawlowski, grand knight of Knights Council 6247, said shortly before the parade began. "I don't know what happened to the complaint.

He added that the group did not need a permit for the banner because it stays up less than 90 days.

Last year, the banner sparked a Christmas controversy when the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked then-Mayor Michael Batten to remove it.
The banner has been a staple in Pitman, which was founded more than a century ago as a Methodist summer retreat.

Do you have a problem with religious holiday symbols being displayed on public grounds?