church and state hi res_newWritten by Don Byrd

In Salem, Virginia, a Veterans Affairs medical center experienced a brief firestorm when the director announced that Christmas trees would not be allowed in public spaces of the building because they promote Christianity. After outcry and a “heated” meeting with employees, a new directive allows the tree, in balance with other religious symbols of the season.

From the official Salem VAMC statement, as reported by WSLS:

After a lengthy discussion, it was determined that Christmas trees could be displayed in public areas so long as they were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely the Jewish Menorah, or Hanukkah Lamp, and the Kwanzaa Mkeka (decorative mat) or Kinara (candleholder).

VA Directive 0022, titled “Religious Symbols in Holiday Displays in VA Facilities”, clearly states that “Religious symbols may be included in a holiday display in a public area of a VA facility if the display does not favor one religion over another, and conveys a primarily secular message.  By placing diverse holiday symbols together in the public places of its facilities, VA gives no preference to one holiday above another.  Prominently displaying a sign or banner containing a secular message such as ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings’ assists in achieving [that] primarily secular message.

Usually, such fights over holiday displays are reserved for more explicitly religious expressions of Christmas, like a nativity scene. In that context, courts have been clear that such government displays should be accompanied by symbols of other faiths and other holidays of the season to avoid improperly promoting one religion over another.

Is a Christmas tree religious? Well, to many I am sure it is, and others see it more like veteran Vicki Jackson: “I don’t look at the tree as the birth of Christ, I don’t,” said Jackson. “I look at is as a tree being decorated with ornaments.” 

The VAMC shouldn’t be faulted for trying to be respectful of those who do not celebrate Christmas. But the solution makes sense, placing the display in a broader holiday context. That may not be required by church-state law when it comes to Christmas trees, which are viewed as largely secular symbols of the holiday, but it’s a thoughtful gesture.

For more on the topic of holiday dilemmas, see Brent Walker’s 2012 column, “Modeling the Virtues of Christmas.