Thursday, March 23, 2006

Easter Bunny gets booted in St. Paul

In what will surely be touted as yet another example of the "war" on religion, Easter decorations in the St. Paul City Council offices were taken down after questions were raised about whether it was appropriate to recognize the Christian holiday.

A toy rabbit decorating the entrance of the St. Paul City Council offices went hop-hop-hoppin' on down the bunny trail Wednesday after the city's human rights director said non-Christians might be offended by it.

The decorations — including the stuffed rabbit, Easter eggs and a handcrafted sign saying "Happy Easter," but nothing depicting the biblical account of Christ's death and resurrection — were put up this week in the office of the City Council by a council secretary.

Now before people get totally bent out of shape, let's point out that nobody complained; the city's human-rights director simply raised the question of "is this appropriate?", and they decided it was not. This is an incident of trying to be sensitive to other beliefs, not caving to pressure or litigation.

We should also acknowledge two other things:

1. This is not a constitutional issue. A bunny and a "Happy Easter" sign put up by a municipal worker without city money or approval doesn't really amount to establishment of religion.

2. The sensitivity issue was overblown, inasmuch as there was expressed concern that a non-Christian might be "offended" by the display. I'm sure someone could get offended by it, but I don't think such a person would meet the "reasonable person" standard so common in law.

All that said, taking down the display was the right thing to do. It's not a matter of law; it's a matter of simple human courtesy.

Religion is a part of society. It has no more and no fewer rights than any other form of expression. A municipal worker who is allowed to put up a "Go Vikings!" sign in their cubicle is equally allowed to put up a "Jesus Saves" sign.

But religion is unique when it comes to perceived government sponsorship. City Hall can hang a 50-foot banner out front saying "Go Vikings!"; they would be way out of line to hang a similar banner saying "Jesus saves."

Between those clear examples lies a vast gray area, where what is appropriate is open to debate, subject to context and personal preference.

Government has a right to acknowledge religion's role in society. And there's no real problem with marking religious holidays, as they are part of society, too. The problem comes when government only acknowledges a single religion, or gives clear preference to a single religion, or when they are driven by religious motivations and not a more neutral one.

In the St. Paul case, I highly doubt that non-Christian holidays get the same routine celebratory treatment that Christian holidays do. To some extent that reflects the fact that we are still a majority Christian country; but where government is involved, caution and sensitivity are called for. Not for fear of offending non-Christians, but so as to make clear that we are a government for all faiths, not just one.

Governmental units should commemorate all major holidays of major faiths, or none of them. Or come up with a religion-neutral criteria for choosing. Acknowledge religious contributions to society for their contributions, not their religion.

In our increasingly multireligious society, anything else is simply rude. The St. Paul display was absolutely minor; it was unlikely to offend anyone. But the principles that led to the decision to take it down were absolutely correct.

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