A small band of Bethlehem residents gather to protest the town’s decision to reject a woman’s request to post a Merry Christmas sign there. Photo by Michael Hallisey/Spotlight
DELMAR — It started on the ides of December. Elena Marcelle, a resident of Bethlehem, petitioned the town to place her “Merry Christmas” sign at a small public park where Kenwood and Delaware avenues intersect — commonly known as the Four Corners — just as she had done five years before.
She was denied.
“Five years ago, I petitioned the town to allow me to purchase and hang a “Merry Christmas” sign on the lighted holiday tree at the [Four] Corners,” Marcelle wrote to Melissa Kermani, chairperson of the Bethlehem Republican Committee, after she received her rejection from town supervisor, John Clarkson, who is Democrat. “The town allowed me my request [five years ago]. When I requested the same of the town this year,” stated Marcelle, “not only was I denied, but the town retaliated and took down the “Happy Hannukah” sign.”
The quaint park lies in the crook of the busiest intersection in a town of roughly 33,000 people. Kenwood Avenue connecting residents of Slingerlands to those of the “Tri-Villages” of Delmar, Elsmere and Glenmont. And, Delaware Avenue, once a major outlet connecting the City of Albany to communities out west.
Marcelle reached out to Kermani after seeking out the Alliance Defending Freedom advocacy group out of Scottsdale, AZ. The Alliance is an organization that defends the right of people to live out their choice of religious faith.
“It was brought to our attention by Dr. Elena Marcelle that you have decided to remove a “Merry Christmas” sign from Town of Bethlehem property because you are concerned that allowing the sign to stay might violate the United States Constitution,” stated Alliance attorney Joseph E. La Rue in a Dec. 17 letter to Clarkson. “As this letter will explain, the Establishment Clause allows the Town to place the Merry Christmas sign on its property.”
La Rue cited Lynch v. Donnelly, an example of case law that concluded with the US Supreme Court deciding in favor of the City of Pawtucket, R.I.’s nativity display, a tradition the city had followed every year since World War II.
“The irony is not lost on us that your Town’s name is Bethlehem,” wrote La Rue. “We hope that Bethlehem, New York, will make room for a sign to wish those who drive by the Four Corners a ‘Merry Christmas’…”
The irony wasn’t lost on the press, either.
Marcelle’s request to Bethlehem’s Republican Committee was forwarded to every broadcast news station in the Capital District, the Times Union and SpotlightNews. The Times Union published the story on its front page. It was the week of Christmas; a quick news grab on an otherwise slow news week. The surface details of the story were too rich to pass up. The story was shared on the Associated Press news wire and subsequently picked up by The New York Post, the Washington Post and other news outlets across the county. “Looks like there’s no room in Bethlehem, again,” read one headline. Even Nigeria News, an RSS news reader, posted the story.
The term “Separation of Church and State” is an adaptation of a phrase coined by Roger Williams, the Baptist theologian who founded the colony of Rhode Island. “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” was stated in his 1644 book “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution” and borrowed by Thomas Jefferson as a description of the First Amendment in a letter to Danbury Baptists to describe the restrictions of the legislative branch. “Legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
The simplistic views of the virtual playing field shared by both religion and government has been clouded since Jefferson penned that letter back in 1802. Jefferson’s proverbial wall has holes, some of which are of his own doing. Jefferson and James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, are both known to have attended religious services held at the Capitol. Since the Reformation of the 1500s to the mid-1800s, Christmas was not openly celebrated — outside of church or home — with parties and cheer. Such demonstrative behavior was not acceptable. But, views on such behavior relaxed in time. By 1870, Christmas was established as a National Holiday. Later, in the midst of the Cold War, Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the country’s motto as a means to separate the United States from atheistic Communism in 1956. Several cases have come in front of the US Supreme Court to interpret the Establishment Clause, in turn, creating several case laws now in use to aid in similar arguments. As with every change of its presiding justices, some variations of the court have provided conservative views, others more liberal, all of whom listen to oral arguments within a chamber decorated with Moses and the Ten Commandments permanently displayed.
When Clarkson received Marcelle’s request to place her “Merry Christmas” sign at the Four Corners, he approached town attorney Jim Potter. The unnamed park already possessed a lit Christmas tree and an electric menorah, along with two park benches and a Victorian style clock, crammed into a space the size of an average living room. The display has gone relatively uncontested since it started several years ago. However, that wasn’t always the case in the past. The town’s public library had a long tradition of displaying a Christmas tree. The practice fell under scrutiny twenty years ago, and has since ceased. “The content of holiday displays on public property has been the subject of contentious litigation for over 25 years,” stated Clarkson in his Dec. 18 press release.
Clarkson prefaced his press release with the clarification the town “did not remove” Marcelle’s sign. Matters of free speech and separation of Church and State were cited among his concerns, and with that, whether Marcelle’s request would risk the current display. “In fashioning the holiday display, we try to avoid any constitutional questions,” stated Clarkson, adding that the current tree and menorah was consistent with a 1989 case involving the City of Pittsburgh.
The case of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union centered upon multiple displays that included a menorah, the Christian nativity scene and a Christmas tree. Six of the nine justices believed the menorah display was constitutional, but the majority found the nativity display to be a violation. The presence of the Christmas tree was not questioned, but was mentioned in the justices’ published opinions. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor believed the nativity scene to be unconstitutional, and stated she would view the menorah unlawful had it stood on its own. However, the symbol of the Christmas (or Holiday) tree, in her view, was not bound particularly to Christianity. Together with the menorah, she stated, the city created a display representing multiple religions.
“The town is absolutely being neutral about it,” said Melanie Trimble, Capital Region Chapter Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union [NYCLU]. Though it had not been approached for legal advice here, the NYCLU has battled over the issue in courtrooms before. From Trimble’s vantage point, “I think the town is weighing the concerns of the public.”
The Friday before Christmas, people gathered at Four Corners to protest for the Christmas sign.
“The holiday is Merry Christmas and I think it should be included,” said Beth Sontz of Glenmont. Sontz and her family were among a modest group of protesters who gathered despite a steady, winter rain. “There’s a menorah, which is a religious sign. I am very respectful of other people’s religions. I just think Merry Christmas should be included for Christians, and I’m a Christian, and it’s the reason for the season.”
When the question was raised about this being an issue of Separation of Church and State, Sontz referred to her daughter, a practicing lawyer in Boston but home for the holiday.
“As long as the government is not openly embracing one religion, as long as there is the ability to have a menorah, to have a Christmas tree, to have Kwanza lights, to be inclusive, then no. I don’t see that being an issue,” said Meghan Stioccheppi. “I think [the present display]’s a great representation of the season.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.