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Sapere aude - dare to be wise
Monday, December 15, 2003
Posted 11:13 PM by Joshua Claybourn
Professor Florence Roisman, who was one of the principal objector's to the Christmas tree in the law school's atrium, has penned the following essay to defend and explain her position. It was intially submitted to the Indianapolis Star, but the newspaper turned it down even after criticizing her position in an editorial. Professor Roisman is a nationally known expert in property law. Sapere aude appreciates her important perspective in the discussion.


The center of the discussion at the IU School of Law -- Indianapolis is not a tree but the question: How do people of different faiths and different philosophies best work, live, and learn together? This is an important question, worthy of considerable time, thoughtful attention, and substantive, respectful conversation.

The law school consists of students, staff, and faculty -- and welcomes visitors -- of many different faiths and philosophies, including (but not limited to) Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, agnosticism, and atheism. Indeed, the law school celebrates and seeks to expand the participation of people from different countries and cultures. Our most recent Alumni Magazine (for Autumn 2003) begins with the words: "Cultural Understanding," as the Dean's Message describes "the dynamic international, cultural and ethnic diversity in our school," focusing particular attention on our new Master of Laws Program in American Law for Foreign Lawyers and our new Center for International and Comparative Law.

Early in December, a Christmas tree was placed in the law school's atrium -- the large, multi-story, central, and most prominent part of the building. I objected to the official display of the Christmas tree because it is a symbol of one religion, Christianity. I believe that such a display is of doubtful constitutionality in a state-supported law school, but my principal objection is one of policy, not law. My principal objection is that the official display of a symbol of one religion conveys to those of us who subscribe to other religions or philosophies that we are less welcome, less valued, not fully part of the community; that we are allowed to be present by sufferance only. I certainly do not believe that the Christmas tree was erected with the intention of sending that message, and I understand that some non-Christians did not take that message from the display of the tree. But the Christmas tree conveyed that message to me and to others -- students, staff, and faculty; and it certainly is not unreasonable for those of us who are not Christians to take that message from the Christmas tree.

I am particularly concerned about such a message of exclusion because this is a time of heightened religious and cultural intolerance. To cite only a few, recent, domestic, instances: Some of our Muslim students have told us that they have experienced hostility, and we know that Muslims (and people perceived to be Muslims) are subjected to and anticipate many forms of intolerance. The Holocaust museum in Terre Haute recently was destroyed by arson. The Ku Klux Klan recently demonstrated in Indianapolis to protest the presence of Hispanics here. A uniformed United States Army General has publicly, repeatedly, stated that this is a "Christian nation" and that his Christian "G-d was a real G-d, and [the Muslim G-d] was an idol."

A Christian symbol, prominently, exclusively, and officially displayed in the center of the law school is reasonably read as a statement that the law school gives special respect to Christianity. During the holy month of Ramadan, the law school presented no atrium display to honor Islam. The law school has not displayed in the atrium any menorah or other symbol of Chanukah, and the Jewish High Holy Days come and go with no recognition from the law school. (Indeed, classes are scheduled on those days.) The law school has not displayed in the atrium any symbol of Buddism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or any other religion, let alone agnosticism or atheism. The one and only religious display presented by the law school has been this Christmas tree.

Some say that the tree is not a symbol of Christmas, or that Christmas is a secular, not a religious holiday, and some have pointed out that some non-Christians have Christmas trees. I suggest that the very name -- "Christmas tree" -- indicates that the tree is a symbol of the holiday from which it takes its name. I suggest that most people, certainly including most Christians, consider that Christmas is a religious holiday. I suggest also that the controversy over this event has occurred only because the tree is taken to be a symbol of Christianity.

Some have said that Christmas trees appear in many places. Indeed they do, since the majority of people who live in the United States are Christians, and some people who are not Christians have Christmas trees nonetheless. But the question for us is what should be displayed officially in a public building that purports to welcome people of all faiths and philosophies.

Some have said that the Supreme Court has upheld the secular status of Christmas trees. This is not accurate. In the 1989 case of County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court reversed an order forbidding the display of an 18-foot Chanukah menorah which appeared next to a 45-foot Christmas tree at the foot of which was a sign entitled "Salute to Liberty." The justices were sharply divided; there is no opinion of the Court with regard to the menorah or the Christmas tree (which itself was not in issue in the case). There is dictum in several opinions disagreeing about whether, to what extent, and in what (if any) circumstances a Christmas tree may be a religious symbol, but there is no resolution of the issue.

In sum, my objection to the Christmas tree is that it indicates a preference for the Christian religion over all other faiths and philosophies. As to the display that replaced the original tree, I think the question is whether the two trees and sleigh connote the religious holiday of Christmas. I believe that they do, though I know that others disagree. With respect to both the original display and the replacement, people disagree about (1) whether the display denotes Christmas; (2) whether Christmas is a religious holiday; and (3) whether a display that denotes a religious holiday of one religion should be placed in the law school's atrium.

I hope that the law school and larger communities will continue to engage in respectful discussion of the varying views about these issues. Freedom of discussion is one of the greatest glories of the United States, and it can be devoted to no more important task than reconciliation of different opinions about how to achieve both inclusiveness and freedom of belief.

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