The Christmas tree on display in the Fort Collins City Hall is not an official endorsement of Christmas, council members said Thursday.
The council’s decision to display on city property Santa Claus and Christmas trees while refusing to allow menorahs or other religious displays has outraged interfaith leaders. Council members said Christmas trees and Santa Claus are secular holiday symbols.
“I just about fell out of my chair,” Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik said to the notion that Santa Claus is secular. “I never sat on Santa’s lap, and I never will.”
Council members are playing to the majority at the expense of alienating the city’s religious minorities, he said.
City council members Kurt Kastein and Diggs Brown said that if one religious symbol is displayed, then the city would be obligated to display symbols for every religion.
“It’s just a tree with lights on it,” said District 3 Councilman Diggs Brown. “I do believe you could put dollar signs on that tree and it would have the same effect that it does today.”
Though the city’s formal holiday display at the Oak Street Plaza in Old Town is at the center of the debate, Christmas trees are also on display at several city buildings.
Brown and Kastein cited a 1994 Supreme Court decision that ruled Christmas trees with white lights to be non-religious symbols. But when asked if some citizens may associate the Christmas trees with Christianity, Kastein said they might.
“Sure, it could be, because Christmas is part of ‘Christmas tree’ and it’s Christmas, and you’re right that it is Christ’s birthday,” Kastein said. But he added that court precedent favors the city’s position.
He said city attorneys told the city council that the menorah, which signifies Hanukkah, is a religious symbol. Kastein added that if the city were to display a menorah, it would also have to display all sorts of symbols – “Rudolph, Frosty, and countless other secular and religious symbols.”
In short, it would lead to chaos.
As far as alienation goes, “the same argument could be made for Christians who aren’t seeing a nativity scene displayed on public property,” he said. “I would say to folks that have an issue with that that being inclusive on this particular display is next to impossible without being ridiculous.”
So for now, menorahs are banned from city property in Fort Collins. Gorelik said that the city’s leadership doesn’t reflect its citizens.
Gorelik is set to lead a menorah lighting service at CSU on the Lory Student Center Plaza on Thursday, and another in Old Town Square on Dec. 21. Hanukkah begins Dec. 15 at sundown.
Brown called the decision “tough” and described future hopes of showcasing all kinds of religious symbols at a city park. Kastein, however, said he’s OK with the current situation.
“I’m pretty happy with just saying, ‘Merry Christmas’ with a Christmas tree,” Kastein said. “I like Christmas. I like the city recognizing that it is Christmastime, and the vast majority of citizens in Fort Collins would agree and celebrate Christmas. And the best way for us to do that is to display a Christmas tree.”
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Dec. 21, menorah lighting, Old Town Square, 6 p.m., a giant menorah lighting ceremony
CSU Hanukkah celebration, menorah on plaza on Thursday.
Hanukkah starts the night of Dec. 15.