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posted: 12/8/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Christmas and the role of government

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  • Associated PressA Nativity scene is displayed for the holiday season in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol in 2011 in Springfield.

    Associated PressA Nativity scene is displayed for the holiday season in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol in 2011 in Springfield.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

An exhibit including the Christmas Nativity scene opened in the Illinois State Capitol last week, prompting considerably less fanfare than did the first display when it was erected six years ago.

Overtly religious depictions of the holiday on government property are with only few exceptions things of the past after a series of legal challenges in the past several decades ended up being resolved on the sides of those who questioned them.

The scene in Springfield remains largely because it is privately funded and because the rotunda space also offers up displays of the state's Christmas tree, a menorah recognizing Hanukkah and a sign that celebrates the winter solstice. In other words, it's a diverse display in which the state subsidizes no favorites.

Much has been said in recent years about the so-called "war on Christmas," and to some degree you can argue there has been a movement toward increased secularization of the holiday.

But if that's the case, it's been a cultural movement, not one ordained by government. Retailers who choose to promote "holiday sales" rather than "Christmas sales" are not required by the state to do so; they're responding to their customers. And comedians who make tasteless jokes about Christianity that they wouldn't make about minority religions are not following government edicts either. These are cultural shifts, spurred by myriad factors.

When it comes to separation of church and state, of course, the Founders who sought to constitutionally protect religion from government intrusion were for the most part stoutly religious men. Ironically, most of them assumed the country to be Christian; their concerns were chiefly that the state not favor one denomination over another.

To that extent, there has been an unmistakable evolution of the constitutional mandates from the intentions of at least many of the Founders.

We are a much more diverse country today than we were at the time of our founding, with a much larger variety of religious points of view.

That frankly is not as simple as it might sound. Non-faith, after all, is based on as much of an unprovable belief system as faith is. A government that rejects religion therefore could in essence be seen as endorsing non-religion in the process.

In the end, the issue is about picking sides. The government ought not be picking any. It ought to be saying religion is an individual's choice, not the government's choice.

This is a wonderful time of year, a time when so many of us celebrate the wondrous Christmas spirit of giving and good will -- and yes, of believing.

That celebration is joyous and it is ours. It doesn't need state approval. It is ours. All we ask is that government not interfere.

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