December 1, 2009

It All Depends On Whose Ox Is Being Gored

The Alliance Defense Fund took the California city of Merced to task for changing the name of its annual Christmas parade to the "Holiday" parade and then bowing to pressure from citizens to change the name back to the "Christmas" parade.  ADF's argument:  "It's ridiculous that the people of Merced have to think twice about whether it's OK to have a 'Christmas' parade. An overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate Christmas and are opposed to any kind of censorship of Christmas."  And astonishingly, ADF made this argument after the city's own internal political process resolved the issue in the manner most favorable to ADF's position.

The theme of the parade is, admittedly, not particularly religious:  "Sand, Surf & Santa;" any float or exhibition may display or make reference to any religion but presumably must adhere to guidelines of good taste and family-friendliness.  So a Jewish congregation could put a float in the Christmas parade if it wanted to and they'd be welcome, and I presume the good people of Merced would applaud their Jewish neighbors' efforts if they chose to engage in them.  More likely, though, the good Jewish people of Merced will likely say either, 1) "Ah, let the Christians have their parade, we'll sleep in that day," or 2) "The parade is on a Saturday -- we're going to Temple instead because we're, well, Jewish."

Bear in mind that Merced's Christmas parade was formerly organized and paid for by private sponsors.  Who, all will surely agree, can have a parade for pretty much any reason they want, and can call it whatever they want.  They can parade down the streets in full ecclesiastical robes, preaching from the Gospels, dispensing holy crackers, or whatever else they want to do.  But this year, they ran out of steam and money for the project and asked the city to take over.  Now the parade was in the hands of a public entity.  At the minimum, the city staff's caution about a sectarian reference in something the city was doing seems, well, prudent

In fact, I think they were right and ADF is wrong.  The city is sponsoring a Christmas parade.  It's one thing to recognize that most city workers are Christian and call Christmas a holiday to allow them to celebrate their religion -- giving non-Christians a day off work in the process.  It's something else to shut down the main streets of the city, divert law enforcement and medical response resources, spend tens of thousands of dollars on setup and cleanup, and take time away from providing municipal services to get city staff to plan and organize an activity intended to celebrate a holy day of one particular religion.  How would ADF feel if the City of Merced had a parade to celebrate Eid al-Adha?*  (ADF itself might remain silent about that, now that I think about it, but its members would likely fall into fits of apoplexy.)

But here's the insiduous thing.  ADF said that changing the name of the parade was a "kind of censorship of Christmas."  Censorship?  Here's the applicable rules, fellahs:

Rule 1:
The government is not a private party.

Rule 2:
Failure to support something is not the same thing as suppressing it.

Rule 3:
The Constitution limits the majority's ability to exercise power.

You don't have any problem with those concepts when we're talking about the NEA subsidizing an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.  "That was an abuse of government money."  But when it comes to your own religion -- a religion that not everyone shares, need I remind you -- suddenly those ideas become foggy and indistinct.  So now, maybe you need a lawyer to put things together for you, and hey, guess what?  I'm a lawyer!  So here you go:
What a private party could do under his "Free Exercise" rights becomes an "Establishment" if the government does the same thing.  The government may not violate the Constitution, despite the wishes of the majority that it do so.  Having a "holiday" parade instead of a "Christmas" parade is not censorship of Christianity, it is a failure to Establish Christianity.

Any questions?

Hat tip to Howard Friedman.

* Eid al-Adha is a Muslim holiday intended to celebrate the "great sacrifice," which is the Patriarch Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to Allah.  It's the same story in the Jewish and Christian traditions, with the only difference being the identity of the son in question.  If you believe the story, Abraham took a knife to his own son's throat and was ready to slice it open and kill the boy upon God's command, and it was all a test to see how loyal Abraham really was to God, and at the last second God was "merciful" and allowed Abraham to sacrifice a sheep instead of the utterly terrified child whose very life had been threatened by his own father moments before.  This story is in at least the top ten of the most horrible, detestable, and morally awful stories in the entire Bible -- and moving the story from the Bible to the Koran and changing the innocent child's name from "Isaac" to "Ishamel" doesn't help things at all.  If someone today took a knife to his own son's throat because he heard a disembodied voice telling him to do so, we'd call him a "schizophrenic" and lock him up for his own safety and that of others.  Making a holiday out of this story is positively barbaric.  But of course, I am socially obliged to "respect" other people's religions so, Eid Mubarek, Muslim Readers! You may call fatwa down upon me now.

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