Understanding separation between church and state

In her November 2 editorial, Colleen Lindsay argues that Kentucky governor Beshear’s decision to call the Capitol building Christmas Tree a ‘holiday tree’ is a case of political correctness gone too far. In one sense, Lindsay is correct. While there is an argument to be made that the tree has been effectively secularized, many people still see the tree as a symbol of Christmas. Simply renaming it a ‘holiday tree’ does not make it inclusive, just as calling a nativity scene a ‘holiday scene’ or a menorah a ‘holiday candle’ does not erase the original meanings of those symbols.

However, the situation that Lindsay seems to desire – a standalone Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn – is arguably unconstitutional. It is hard to identify a strong secular purpose for the display of a Christmas tree on government property, and with the tree standing alone, it could amount to state endorsement of one religion.

Paying close attention to religious displays on state property isn’t about “political correctness,” and it’s certainly not an attempt to wipe out the word Christmas from “common speech;” it’s about legal correctness. That said, there are situations in which religious symbols can be legally displayed on government property. In Allegheny County v. ACLU, the Supreme Court declared that a co-display of a Christmas tree and a menorah was constitutional, as “both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society” (Allegheny County v. ACLU).

This type of holiday display serves a secular purpose: the recognition of meaningful celebrations without endorsing one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. This is not, as Lindsay would claim, a “tradition of limiting freedom of speech.” This is part of the American tradition of separation between church and state.

Ben Leddy, Junior, LAS