Can you imagine a public high school principal forbidding her teachers from talking about race during Black History Month? Unthinkable, especially in these enlightened, politically correct times.
Yet this scenario exactly parallels what King County, Wash., executive Ron Sims told religious employees who work for county agencies in and around Seattle.
In a November memo to all King County employees, Sims required that all workplace holiday celebrations remain "religion-neutral." The memo includes examples of neutrality, such as, "naming the celebration(s) 'Holiday Celebration' or 'Winter Celebration'; using general greetings such as 'Happy Holidays' or 'Holiday Greetings'; using decorations that are commonplace poinsettias, evergreen boughs, lights but not using religious symbols nor (sic) practices."
When word of the memo leaked, Sims' office reportedly was flooded with complaints.
But before we nominate Sims, a Democrat, as Seattle's official Scrooge, we should realize that his memo is not out of the ordinary for government regulation of religion in the public sphere. Sims' guidelines, in fact, reflect the left's usual "separationist" interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. They are identical to those that guide the nation's public schools.
And that's the real problem with Ron Sims' memo: it reflects the religious bigotry inherent in the "separationist" position.
The "separationist" ideology says that religious "neutrality" requires forbidding the expression of religious sentiments or actions in public places and by public employees, especially by public school teachers. If religion can be kept out of sight, the argument goes, it cannot offend or threaten anyone. Religion is fine, but only as a private matter.
Employing this ideology, the United States Supreme Court barred non-sectarian prayers from public schools, including graduation ceremonies, and continues to restrict religious expression in the public sphere, all in the name of "neutrality." Mr. Sims simply extended this position to his county fiefdom.
But silencing religious expression is hardly neutral toward religion. To tell an employee she should say "Holiday Greetings" and thereby implicitly banning her from saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukah" suggests a profound mistrust and fear of religious people. It says, "Your religious beliefs are so dangerous and your judgment about the propriety of expressing them so questionable, that you must pretend that you don't have them." At this time of year, it is like telling an African-American schoolteacher during Black History Month, "don't act like you are black."
It is insulting, moreover, to those who do not celebrate this season in a religious manner. It suggests that the mere association of the holiday season with religion which, of course, is why this time of year is a holiday season is so uncomfortable or offensive to some people that it must be prohibited at all costs. Most Americans, one hopes, are secure enough in their own beliefs that they can tolerate, perhaps even appreciate, symbolic religious expressions by their co-workers.
None of this is to say that religion, especially in particularly strident forms, cannot be divisive or off-putting. But that does not mean we must pretend religion does not exist.
Just as Americans celebrate various cultural traditions, to broaden our own experience and signal mutual respect, we can appreciate the religious foundations of the holiday season. Hosting an office celebration in the fourth week of December and calling it a "Christmas" party need not be any more offensive than a "Cinco de Mayo" party in the first week of May. Just as attendees of the latter do not need to be Mexican, they need not be Christian to enjoy the former. And for those who take religion seriously, whether of faith or not, such occasions might involve learning more deeply about the core convictions of another.
Given the events of the last few months, now more than ever is a time to search for and to embrace one's own faith, and to learn about the faith of others. While government should not favor one religion over others, it need not demand a position of "neutrality" that amounts to hostility. Public employees, like all citizens, ought to be free to express their religious convictions.
None of us should tolerate religious discrimination. So Mr. Sims, "Merry Christmas."