It’s a nearly century-old tradition. Every year in December, the U.S. president presides over the lighting of the National Christmas Tree near the White House in Washington, D.C.
The ritual began in 1923–when President Calvin Coolidge lit the first tree on behalf of all Americans–and has remained unbroken since then.
“I think it’s wonderful to have that,” said Lena Ayoub of Maryland. “It symbolizes what we celebrate for Christmas.”
But not everyone agrees. Each holiday season seems to spark a renewed debate over whether it’s appropriate to place religious symbols on public property in a country founded on the principle that a separation of church and state is essential to preserving the rights of all Americans.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a nativity scene at church, or on your private property or in a parade, or some other private venue,” said John Ragosta, a history professor at Oberlin College and author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed. “But the idea of having government embrace your religion immediately excludes anybody who’s not of your religion.”
The phrase “separation of church and state” appears in an 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson, in which he refers to the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
“He was completely supported by 18th century evangelicals, the Baptists, the Presbyterians. They were saying very expressly that this country is not a Christian nation. It is for the Jew, the Gentile, the Hindu, the Mohammedan,” said Ragosta. “These were people who’d been persecuted because church and state had not been separated so they knew exactly what they were talking about.”
In order to reserve that separation, this month the American Civil Liberties Union of the U.S. state of Indiana filed a lawsuit challenging the placement of a religious Nativity scene outside the Franklin County courthouse. The lawsuit alleges the Nativity scene is a violation of the First Amendment because it suggests the county endorses Christianity.
Christians make up about 73 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to figures from 2012. Twenty percent of U.S. adults consider themselves to be unaffiliated with any religion, while about 6 percent identify with non-Christian faiths.
“I think religion is intrinsically part of American culture,” said Gordon Peters of New York, who points to other instances in the United States where the line between government and religion is blurred. For example, American currency bears the words, “In God We Trust”, which has been the official U.S. motto since being signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
“I would prefer to see all religions represented,” Peters said, “but I think it’s part of American culture to have religion be a part of life.”
Since 1979, the National Menorah, a symbol important to the Jewish faith, has joined the National Christmas tree on display near the White House. But what about the public display of symbols that are representative of other religions?
“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Ken Simmons of Houston, Texas. “I think all of the religions should have freedom to express what they feel on the property that they pay the same taxes on as I pay.”
It’s a sentiment shared by his wife, Linda.
“We’ve gotten away from it [public religious displays] because we’re too politically correct,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a problem with it at all and I totally support it.”
A recent Pew Research poll finds 72 percent of U.S. adults believe Christian symbols like nativity scenes should be allowed on government property.
“Religious freedom is not a matter of majority rule,” Ragosta said. “The whole point of religious freedom, and for that matter, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, is to protect the minority view.”
Roberto Westbrooke, of Norfolk, Virginia, stopped by to see the National Christmas tree during Christmas week.
“Is it endorsing a religion? I haven’t thought much about it, honestly,” he said. “I don’t know but I think they’re opening themselves up to maybe having to have all religions represented there if they want to be…it might get a little odd if there are some satanic worshippers out there.”
There are. As Christmas week got under way in Lansing, Michigan, Christians and Satanists erected competing displays on the grounds of the state capitol, making the question of where to draw the line a complicated one.
“I think if you try to refine to a point, to that tip, you are going to be unsuccessful at being able to display anything that has any sort of religious connotation,” said Lisa from Massachusetts. “What are we comfortable with from a public display perspective? I think you have to look at the culture. I don’t know if there’s really a right or wrong answer but I don’t see that it’s an absolute.”
But Ragosta sees the issue in much more distinct lines, and for him, it brings to mind the motto emblazoned on the official seal of the United States, “E pluribus unum”, meaning, “Out of many, one.”
“If you have a public Christian display and you’re not Christian…if you’re not part of that particular religion, it makes you feel like you’re not part of the government in the same way, you’re not as patriotic, you’re not a part of ‘us’,” he said. “We have many people from many different perspectives, many different religions, many different beliefs, but we’re stronger as one. But a religious symbol on public property divides people, rather than bringing them together.”