By Stephen L. Carter
Here are this season’s final updates on the Christmas wars.
A federal district court rejected a request by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority be ordered to allow the posting of advertising for its “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign on city buses. The transit authority cited its rules against posting religious messages; the archdiocese argued that the rules were either unconstitutional or not consistently applied. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to grant an emergency injunction. That’s not to say the archdiocese can’t ultimately prevail on the merits of the claim, but its ad didn’t run this season.
We’re all accustomed by now to lawsuits demanding the removal of Nativity scenes from public property. But in Pittsburgh, the battle over the creche in the City-County Building has nothing to do with the judges. Darlene Harris, a member of the City Council, claims that the creche she put under the Christmas tree in the council offices was removed on the orders of council President Bruce Kraus. The first time, the creche was returned to Harris, who restored it to its place under the tree. Now it’s apparently disappeared.
Yes, if the Nativity scene remained, a court might well order its removal, depending on whether it was sufficiently surrounded by secular Christmas symbols. (Scholars and lawyers who work in the field often call this the “three plastic animals” rule. Seriously.) According to the local papers, however, this particular battle seems as much about politics as about constitutional law.
Speaking of court orders, just in time for Christmas, Norway plans to start killing reindeer. The nation’s supreme court has upheld a government order requiring Sami reindeer herder Jovsset Ante Sara to reduce the size of his reindeer herd to 75 from 200. In other words, Sara must slaughter more than half his herd — a task usually carried out by shooting the animals in the head. The government’s order is intended to protect the tundra from overgrazing; Sara says that if forced to thin the herd he will not be able to earn a living.
The Sami are an indigenous people inhabiting the arctic regions of Scandinavia and Russia. Traditionally, many earn a living by reindeer husbandry, and in both Sweden and Norway no one else is permitted to own herds. During the settlement of the northern regions, the Sami lost much of their land. Scholars tell us that nowadays the rights of the Sami are better protected in Norway than elsewhere. But not always, it seems — at least not for Sara, who says he will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, far-right websites have been circulating the “news” that Hoboken, New Jersey’s new mayor, a Muslim, has banned the word “Christmas.” But none of this is true. According to Snopes.com, Ravi Bhalla is not the mayor but the mayor-elect; he’s Sikh, not Muslim; and not only has he not tried to ban the word, but he also has used it himself. So the vicious and polemical “story” is entirely wrong. But fire breathers need fire to live, and if they can’t find any, they’ll kindle it themselves … even at Christmas.
One of the most interesting findings of the recent Pew Research Center study of our attitudes toward Christmas came when people were asked how they liked to be greeted in stores while out shopping. As news stories have pointed out, more than half of respondents — 52 percent — said that it doesn’t matter. Some 32 percent preferred “merry Christmas,” a sharp decline from five years ago. Another 15 percent would rather hear “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings.” I keep seeing these numbers spun as a strong majority (15 + 52 = 67 percent) not insisting on “merry Christmas.” But an equally defensible interpretation is that an even stronger majority (32 + 52 = 84 percent) does not insist on a more secular greeting. In my own shopping this year, I’ve found the greetings by sales personnel divided about 50-50.
Finally, I commend to your attention a column by Izabella Kaminska, editor in chief of FT Alphaville, who argues in the Financial Times that Christmas helps explain why we should not seek efficiency in all things. In an efficiently run world, she writes, Christmas would have no place. Think of all the waste:
“Arts and crafts; handmade decorations; organically-sourced produce from Christmas markets and stalls; Christmas lights; the wrapping of almost everything in decorative paper; indoor trees; festivities and merrymaking on employer-time; Christmas shows; and, most crucially of all, unnecessary gift-giving all around.”
Kaminska adds that it’s difficult to justify in efficiency terms “the over-consumption of almost everything” and “the days-long preparation of just one meal.” But we do it anyway, and evidently should go on doing it: “If the joy, pleasure and job security afforded by Christmas inefficiency tells us anything, it is that efficiency should not be regarded as an end in itself.”
So if you want to fight the power, keep on wrapping.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Minnesota Lawyer, the Bloomberg View editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.