Steven Hofman: Government spin on a holiday display
December 21, 2014
OK, let me get this straight. Some of our local residents wanted to have a menorah celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah on public lands in downtown Steamboat. After some discussion among the county's powers that be, the decision was made to not allow such a religious display, citing our nation's long-held views on the separation of church and state.
In the course of explaining, or perhaps more honestly said, justifying this decision, public officials offered the spin that the big tree, which was lighted up in a holiday-like festive manner on the same public lands, was somehow not the Christmas tree that anyone past the age of 3 would call a Christmas tree.
The line was that it is lighted all year round. But that put aside the annual post-Thanksgiving lighting ceremony. Oh, and yes, the Santa's hut on the same public lands also was more secular than religious, as if honoring a symbol of Christmas had no connection to a 2,100-year-old global religion. So those "cultural icons" could stay even as the menorah remained initially homeless.
In response to all this, two things occurred. Residents associated with several of our local churches offered their lands as a temporary home for the menorah. Good for them. Oak Street is not Lincoln Avenue, but generosity and kindness never should be looked down upon.
And second, the Steamboat Pilot & Today editorialized on Dec. 16 on how over time, we should and will figure out what this all means and how we can do better for all future holiday displays. There was some reference to case law not providing sufficient guidance to local decision-makers.
"All's well that ends well" would seem to have been the outcome. But allow me to offer a couple of differing observations.
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If one had read the Dec. 17 edition of the Washington Post (something I generally don't recommend to anyone hoping to remain grounded in reality), you would have seen a rather large picture of a rabbi lighting the "national Hanukkah menorah" on the grounds of the Ellipse in front of the White House.
The menorah is about 10 yards away from the White House Christmas tree on the same public lands. And both are about 2 miles away from the congressional Christmas tree on public lands directly in front of our nation's Capitol building, the place that houses our Senate and House of Representatives, which begin each official session with an opening prayer.
It would seem that unlike public officials in Routt County, neither the president of the United States nor the speaker of the House, and all the legal minds at their beck and call, sees any church-state problems with these multireligious displays and activities.
Heck, they even go to great lengths to joyously and publicly throw the switch each year lighting these trees. It is one of the few bipartisan moments left to celebrate in Washington these days.
So while the issue may be settled at the federal level, apparently the message that holiday displays of this nature are not a constitutional crisis has not filtered down from the top of Rabbit Ears to our local county officials.
Second, one need not be of the Jewish faith to see in all this why many citizens today roll their eyes and scratch their heads when they see such examples reflecting the process of government decision-making and the so-called exercise in leadership. Putting aside the precedent and history of a couple of hundreds of years of tolerance for holiday displays exercised in communities throughout our nation, the idea that no one of authority in county government didn't just say the menorah was no big deal and leave it at that is a reminder that common sense and judgment is in short order among too many of our local elected and appointed officials.
And then in going to great lengths to somehow justify the failure to exercise common sense by saying that the Christmas tree in front of the courthouse was not really a Christmas tree, well, that is just the latest version of saying it depends on just what the definition of "is" is. This is one Washington lesson that never should have made it over the mountain passes.
If I were writing editorials for the Pilot, rather than patting everyone on the head for a welcomed outcome, this is what I would have whispered to our community. Oh, and yes, I would have added, "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah."
Steven Hofman is a full-time Steamboat Springs resident, a former United States assistant secretary of labor under President George H.W. Bush and former director of research and policy for the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.