Ms. Lyons is the mother of four in the Carmel USD in California. She has sued the district alleging that the district subtly and sometimes not so subtly favors Christianity over other religions, leading children of other faiths to feel excluded, “less than.” The opening salvo in her suit was an effort to force the district to allow her to display a six-foot inflatable menorah next to the Christmas tree at the tree lighting ceremony that was sponsored by the PTA. The court did not issue the TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) that she sought. That is by no means the end of the litigation.
To get the TRO Ms. Lyons faced a steep burden of proof and the court held that she simply didn’t get there. In a short opinion, the court held that the tree lighting ceremony did not amount to a government endorsement of a particular religion, and there was nothing about it that infringed on anyone’s freedom of religion. The court noted a Supreme Court pronouncement from 1989:
The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol…..Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas.
Reading this case (Lyons v. Carmel USD, 2021 WL 586554) made me think about the middle school choir concert I attended last month. For the second half of the program the kids were wearing symbols of the season—snowflakes, reindeer antlers, and a lot of Santa hats. After about 50 Santa hats walked onto the stage, out came a tall, good looking boy wearing a very large menorah hat. As he was the next soloist, he took his place in the front of the stage, calling more attention to himself and his silly hat. While the hat was ridiculous, the kid wore it with panache. The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
What would have happened if the choir director had told this student that he could not wear this hat? I’m quite sure that the student would have a legitimate free speech claim. It was clear that the choir director had allowed students to choose their own seasonal symbols. Predictably, most of them honored Christmas, but it was a student choice, and thus the one student who chose to honor Hannukah had a right to do so.
DAWG BONE: CONTEXT MATTERS.
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