What the separation of church and state is really about, and why some Catholic schools are taking advantage of it

According to some commentators, the pledge of allegiance at Catholic schools as well as the involvement of “public praying and meditation” in Catholic school Christmas celebrations are somehow “contrary to the separation of church and state.” Apparently, a Catholic school counselor or teacher feels that it’s a conflict of church and state to sit the students down and tell them they will not be allowed to sit behind their desks and pray with the rest of their classmates.

In early November, Sister Mary Edith Hubbard discussed how she communicated this very point with one of her Catholic School colleagues. “I said to the monsignor: ‘You know, we all believe in the prayer. That’s the end of it,’ ” she told her. “‘The answer is no, the prayer is not appropriate for the classroom.’ She said ‘but the kids have already promised to pray, and they’re going to pray anyway.’ And I said: ‘But if you pray before the kids, you’re asking them to pray at home in front of the TV, so you’re asking the kids to pray at the table in front of the TV. You’re asking them to pray by the TV. You’re asking them to pray on Christmas, and it’s not the way to open the Christmas season.’ ”

For Hubbard and others, one solution would be to just get rid of the kids. “It’s unacceptable to ask our children to choose between their religious values and their private Catholic ones,” she said. “It’s the great gift that the family gives to the children. The tradition that starts at birth and continues till they leave is a wonderful gift.”

The diversity of the Catholic Church also presents real opportunities for conversations about God and government and society and problems. The rights that Jesus and the apostles fought for have been granted in some cases through the words of the pope, the US Constitution and our own secular laws.

Given the current push-back in the United States against the freedoms of religion and freedom of speech, you might think that ending the celebration of the nativity scene in state capitols would seem like an effective way to respect the religious beliefs of those in power.

Quite the opposite. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, state capitols and statehouses across the country were filled with festive displays honoring the birth of Christ. New York’s Senate chamber in the late 1800s, for example, was adorned with its very own biblically-themed Chanukah menorah, just one of a large number of Christmas-oriented displays that filled the halls of the halls of the states. As the holiday season waned, though, politicians abandoned the holiday displays, deeming them contrary to the separation of church and state and announcing that the state would officially shut down its Christmas display in favor of an oratorical barrage celebrating “Americanism.”

But one hundred years later, the practice of decorating state capitols for the holidays returned with a vengeance. The tree that graced the American visitors center at the new State House in Springfield, Ill., for example, remained in place for decades. In Minnesota, a Rockefeller Center–style Christmas tree, decorated with thousands of lights and ornaments, graced the governor’s Christmas tree for almost 30 years. The Kentucky State House filled its Christmas tree every year from 1947 to 1968. And a loud, boisterous “tinseled” Christmas tree decorated with lights and ornaments graced the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa from 1990 to 1996.

According to Kyle Castelli, a Catholic student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, these celebrations are long-standing traditions in the state. “As a student here, you’re lucky enough to have the belles and lasses of Nebraska come to the main campus and have a grand Christmas celebration on campus every year,” he told me. “This is a small tradition that is beautiful to be part of.”

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