Does maintaining a strict separation of church and state presuppose the existence of a sharp distinction between religious and secular matters? For a long time, I have (implicitly) assumed such a distinction to exist. Now I’m not so sure.
The question came to mind when I heard about school choirs that perform Christmas celebrations composed of only the secular Christmas carols (“Jingle Bells” – OK, “Away in a Manger” – not OK). Now, as an atheist who celebrates Christmas, this doesn’t bother me much, although I admit that some of my favorite Christmas songs are the religious ones. The notion that Christmas has a secular component makes perfect sense to me. Halloween provides an even clearer example of how an essentially religious event can become almost entirely secularized.
Yet Christmas and Halloween both lie on a spectrum. The only difference between the two is the number of people who still regard them as primarily religious events. Note that Halloween’s secularity is questioned by two different groups – the modern-day pagans who still treat it as a holy day, and the fundamentalist Christians who decry it as a form of Satanism. We do not have a sharp line between the religious and the secular, but a gradient. If enough people adopted my attitude toward Christmas, then Christmas might move down the gradient into the “mostly secular” zone occupied by Halloween.
So how should these holidays be treated by the state? Ought teacher-led celebrations of both events be banned from public schools, on grounds that celebrating either violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Or should both be allowed, on grounds that both have secular components that all students can enjoy? Or should the courts adopt a wishy-washy balancing rule, putting judges in the position of deciding whether the secular component of any given event is great enough to overcome church-state concerns?
I don’t have an answer to the question, so I pose it to my readers. I will just add that I see one relatively simple way to finesse problems like these: implement a voucher system, so that parents can choose the degree of secularity to which their children will be exposed.