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Religious Tolerance logo

Separation of church and state

Resolving conflicts in cultural
displays at Christmas time

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Christmas displays on public property:

Religious symbols, such as the Ten Commandments, crucifix, cross, menorah, nativity scene,  pentacle, etc. can be freely displayed on property owned by a church, business or individual. However, many senior U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that such religious symbols cannot be shown by themselves on public property. To do so would violate the principle of separation of church and state, which prohibits governments from:

bulletPromoting one religion over another.

bullet Promoting religion as superior to a secular life philosophy.
bulletPromoting a secular life philosophy as superior to a religious approach.

However, one or more religious symbols can legally appear if they are part of a grouping of many religious and secular symbols. Such a group may then becomes a cultural rather than a religious display.

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Conflicts over displays on public property:

These have taken many forms. Some are:

bulletA desire by some followers of the dominant religion, Christianity, that public display be purely Christian. No minority religions are allowed.

bulletA desire, typically by non-Christians, that there be no religious expression at all. For example, a downtown business group in Denver, CO has had a policy of excluding all religious content from its Christmas parade.

bulletA desire to accept symbols of some religions, but not of others. For example, the municipal government in Watertown, NY, has allowed Jewish and Christian symbols, but excluded Wiccan symbols.

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A method of resolving conflicts:

Hawaii probably has the greatest diversity of religious expression of any state in the United States. If it were not for the aloha spirit, one might expect the greatest potential for conflict would occur here.

There has been some friction. Over a decade ago, former Mayor Frankn Fasi founded a spectacular Honolulu City Lights display on the City Hall lawn. It was originally a secular display. Then, in 1992, a member of a Pearly City persuaded Fasi to add a nativity scene featuring the birth of Christ. In 1997, the American Atheists threatened to launch a discrimination suit because a Buddhist booth which celebrated Bodhi Day was being discriminated against by having been given a less desirable location. The Atheists and the city administration reached a compromise: a lottery would be held each year for the available locations.

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The 2004 display in Honolulu, HI:

In 2004, Santa, elves and massive toys make up the secular City Lights display. Thirteen non-profit groups applied this year for adjacent spaces. The five winners were:

bulletThe Wahiawa Door of Faith Church sponsors a Christian nativity display. A a sign over the crèche says: "Happy Birthday, Lord Jesus."

bulletThe National Assembly of the Bahá'í Faith has a "Garden of Humanity" with flowers representing diverse human cultures. This represents the Bahá'í belief that God provided a succession of prophets, from Noah to Jesus Christ, Mohammed, The Bab, and Baha'u'llah.

bulletThe Good Shepherd Lutheran Church portrays the legend of the candy cane. Its curved shape is symbolic of a shepherd's crook -- a link to Jesus.
bulletA political action committee Stand Up for America installed a map of the United States with a banner rejecting Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism, Humanism and other non-theistic religions by proclaiming "One Nation Under God."

bulletAnother political action committee, the Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Values constructed a wedding cake topped with male and female figures -- presumably a just-married couple. The Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper describes the "underlying message [as] being opposition to same-sex unions." A sign includes two lines from "The Wedding Song," which paraphrase text from the Gospel of Matthew: "The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain; for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is Love." A beautiful thought. But, a cynic might suggest that the "two or more" could actually refer to an opposite-sex couple, or a same-sex couple in Massachusetts, Canada, the Netherlands or Belgium, or even a group of polygamous spouses.

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The 2002 display in Honolulu, HI:

By the luck of the draw, the 2002 display included a much more diverse selection. They are shown in the photographs below. The displays were accompanied with a plaque stating that no government funds were used for the display and that it is "neither sponsored nor endorsed" by the City and County of Honolulu.

The following were installed adjacent to King Street near a group of historically significant buildings including the Iolani Palace, State Library, and Mission House Museum.

Reading from approximately West (Ewa) to East (Diamond Head) the first display is secular in nature. It features Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus:

Next was a second secular display, of Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Frosty and the little frosties:

Next was a political and educational display by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays on Oahu (PFLAG). Oahu is the Hawaiian island where the city of Honolulu is located. PFLAG motto is: "All you need is love to support equality and justice for all." It features a rainbow flag in the form of a Christmas tree, surrounded by presents and a reindeer.

In front of the PLFAG presentation is a Buddhist display for Bodhi Day (a.k.a. Rohatsu) which is observed in the month of December. This recalls the enlightenment of the Buddha in 596 BCE. After the experience, Siddhartha Gautama was weak from fasting. A village woman offer him some food.

To the right of the Buddhist display is a generic Christian manger scene. There is no indication of the name of the sponsoring group:

Behind the manger scene is a political-religious display erected by Stand up for America. It emphasizes that America is "One nation under [the Judeo-Christian] God." Featured are three U.S. flags, a "Happy Birthday Lord Jesus" sign, and a picture of a Jesus portrayed as a Caucasian.

Further East (Diamond Head) are two Baha'i displays. One displays the tree of knowledge:

The other displays the prophets recognized by the Baha'i Faith, from many of the world's great religions. The photograph is taken from the side that features Christianity. Others feature Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.

Finally, there is a Jewish display recognizing Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. It features a stylized menorah and was installed in a small park in Waikiki. It is sponsored by the Chabad of Hawaii:

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Site navigation:

Home > Religious law menu > City & state > here

Home > Religious information > Christmas > here

Home > Christianity > Beliefs, practices, etc > Holy days > Christmas > here

Home > Religious information > ChristmasConflicts > here

Home > Christianity > Beliefs, practices, etc > Holy days > ChristmasConflicts >  here

Home > Religious hatred & conflicts > Specific conflicts >  here

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  1. "The problem and the solution: Churches reprise role in City Lights," Honolulu Star Bulletin, 2004-DEC-11, at:

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Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-DEC-12
Latest update: 2011-DEC-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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