Why Did a Federal Court Rule That Schools Can Display Christmas Trees, but Not Menorahs?

At a public elementary school in California, the Parent-Teacher Association organized a Christmas-tree lighting; a Jewish parent then asked if she could bring a six-foot inflatable menorah to be positioned alongside the tree. The principal demurred and the issue soon wound up in a federal court, which ruled—based on a 1989 Supreme Court decision—that the school could display the tree, which is a secular symbol, but may not display the menorah, a specifically religious symbol, lest it violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Michael A. Helfand examines this counterintuitive finding:

Establishment-clause cases often function as a Rorschach test. But, at a minimum, there are good reasons to question the district court’s importation of a line from the Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion. In that case, County of Allegheny v. ACLU, the Supreme Court addressed multiple religious displays erected in Pittsburgh. One of the displays, set in front of a local government building, included a 45-foot Christmas tree, an 18-foot menorah, and a “salute to liberty sign” with the mayor’s name on it.

In the contemporary case, the Carmel River School sought to exclude, as opposed to include, the menorah in its display. So while some might not normally think of a Christmas tree as a religious symbol, that view might change when government officials prohibit the inclusion of a menorah by its side.

Under those circumstances, you might start to wonder whether the display has started to take on a narrower religious meaning. . . . In this way, the district court’s attempt to pluck a sentence from a 1989 Supreme Court opinion, drop it into a present-day dispute, and then call it a day may not be the most thorough and thoughtful way to deal with the case before it.

And yet, it’s hard not to end with the following relatively straightforward point. Notwithstanding all these contextual niceties and jurisprudential trends, it would be nice to think that—as we desperately seek ways to join together after so long apart—schools could find ways to make sure their students and their families all feel included in communal gatherings. After all we’ve been through, is it really so hard to make space for a 6-foot inflatable menorah?

Read more at Forward

More about: Christmas, First Amendment, Freedom of Religion, Supreme Court

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy