By Beth Lawrence
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners appears poised to deny the requests of a group of residents hoping to make holiday decorations in front of the historic courthouse more inclusive.
During discussions at its October work session, the board cited the religious connotations the proposed decorations might evoke.
A committee designated to choose items suggested adding a Menorah, associated with Chanukah, a Kinara for the African American unity festival Kwanza, and a Nativity scene to include Christian observances of Christmas to the lighted trees and red bows that adorn the hill yearly.
Before the committee’s presentation, to be given by Librarian Tracey Fitzmaurice, was set to begin, Board Chair Brian McMahan expressed disagreement with the suggestions.
He said he was a devout Christian and has manger scenes in his home but did not think it was appropriate for the county to publicly place one. He said his family has Jewish friends and had celebrated Chanukah with them but felt it was inappropriate to add a Menorah and Kinara.
“I appreciate the work the committee did,” he said. “I, for one, personally do not believe that we should put up religious symbols on county government property. I understand that what decorations we do put up they are referred to commonly as Christmas trees, but a Christmas tree is a name that is given to a decoration that has been widely accepted as a secular holiday decoration that bears no religious tone to it. It’s not in any way connected to any kind of religion whereas a Menorah, a Kinara or a manger or Nativity scene they do.”
He said he felt the trees and lights were noncontroversial and “everybody enjoys it.”
In January, McMahan expressed support for inclusive ornaments.
“Our old courthouse, the library complex, is one of the most iconic structures and locations in Jackson County,” McMahan said then. “It’s important that we always protect that hillside and that we are careful to make sure that it is always decorated in a way that is fitting and that is done tastefully and it’s noncontroversial and that it doesn’t create more problems. But we want to also be respectful.”
In January, Commissioner Gayle Woody and County Manager Don Adams said they were approached by local residents asking the county to consider broadening the theme to include other holidays occurring during the traditional Christmas season, particularly Chanukah and Kwanza.
Adams said he had been asked about inclusivity for two years, but requests always came too close to Christmas to consider making changes, so the county appointed a panel to submit suggestions for changes.
Fitzmaurice was asked to present the options after apparently having been shut down by McMahan’s comments.
The committee was charged to find inclusive decorations and work those items into the current scheme in a way that was legally acceptable.
“I will say that people do come to the library wondering where other displays are,” she said. “I know holiday trees are not a Christian symbol, but the whole idea of the decoration is for Christmas. I have employees, and I have residents of the town that have, every year, asked why they’re not represented. The Kinara is a cultural icon, not a religious symbol. The Menorah is religious; although, it has been accepted as secular in some towns depending on how it is lit whether it is lit during an actual Chanukah (ceremony).”
She said the group included a Nativity because of the question over whether the Menorah could be considered religious.
The lighted pieces are the same height and would have been lit in the evenings with the trees.
When placing the ornaments, the group tried to blend them with the other decorations because they felt the law would allow that as long as they were not set apart from others underscoring their religious iconography.
County Attorney Heather Baker said the Supreme Court decides such issues on a case by case basis.
Baker agreed the committee met the legal standards but expressed some reservations.
“It does leave some questions because it’s in a prominent place in the community,” she said. “It is at a well-known entrance to a public building. But ultimately it would be OK under the U.S. Supreme Court Analysis. I did raise the issue that it will generate complaints.”
She said Nativity scenes are typically at the root of such complaints.
The safest legal course would be to leave the decorations as they are, Baker said.
Commissioner Mickey Luker echoed McMahan’s thoughts adding that the county shouldn’t open itself up to the scrutiny and possible liability.
The board has not yet scheduled a vote on the issue.