Christmas controversy hits Missouri State


Missouri State University in Springfield was ground zero last week in the latest “War on Christmas” controversy, one that even Gov. Matt Blunt weighed in on.

After someone — reportedly a Jewish faculty member — complained about the presence of a Christmas tree in a university building, Missouri State personnel removed the tree on Nov. 26.

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A few days later, the tree was up again, this time with a menorah alongside it.

“Missouri State is an institution at which many different religions are represented, and we try to be sensitive to the many views people hold,” said Missouri State University President Michael T. Nietzel, after announcing the decision to reinstall the tree.

Christmas displays — even Nativity scenes — on government property were upheld in Supreme Court decisions handed down in the late 1980s and 1990s, provided that they also include other religious and/or secular holiday symbols such as menorahs and snowmen.

Upon learning of the controversy, Gov. Blunt released a statement Nov. 29, calling the initial removal of the tree “outrageous.” He applauded the decision to put the tree back as “the only proper decision” in this case. “The historical underpinnings and meaning of Christmas cannot be ignored because some university office received a complaint,” Gov. Blunt said.

In addition to addressing the MSU tree, Gov. Blunt also announced a new state directive, declaring “no state employee will be reprimanded, cautioned or disciplined for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to others.” He urged all taxpayer-supported institutions, including MSU, to adopt his policy.

Gerry Greiman, chairman of the religion-state committee for the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, said that, from a legal viewpoint, the state could avoid problems by staying away from religious displays of any kind.

“If you display a Christmas tree alone, it’s clearly problematic,” Greiman said. “From a legal standpoint, (adding a menorah) doesn’t really solve the problem, because now you have the government promoting two religions. There are people who follow other religious persuasions and some who follow no religion. The university, as a government entity, should not be promoting religion in general, particularly one or two religions to the exclusion of others.”

MSU Director of University Communications Don Hendricks said the Christmas tree had been up in same spot in years past, and he was unaware of any previous complaints. He said he did not know who complained this year.

Spurred by the tree incident, Hendricks said, university officials plan to install a display case in the university building which would house rotating displays about various religious holidays as they occur throughout the year.

“The issue for me at Missouri State is not so much the tree,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

“The issue is the underlying insensitivity that produced the tree in the first place,” she said.

As for Gov. Blunt’s response, Aroesty said, “I have some concern about the governor’s action in this instance, and I believe it is indicative of a larger problem that we have been addressing in the state of Missouri very seriously over the past few years.”

“It is appropriate for us to consider continuing the dialogue about these issues of religious sensitivity in the state,” she said.

Jay Umansky, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Congress, said that the AJCongress has had a keen interest over the years in church-state issues.

“We certainly would be concerned if the governor in fact has no concerns, no qualms, and sees no problems with displaying Christmas trees on public property,” Umansky said.

“I think the Founding Fathers were most astute when they implemented the separation of church and state doctrine, because quite frankly, religion has no place in government,” he said. “I think that the mindset that the majority’s religious symbols become somehow Americanized and non-religious, does a disservice to religious minorities in this country.”

Umansky referred to an incident in Branson, Mo., where the Springfield News-Leader reports that the city’s Board of Aldermen was considering a resolution to officially endorse Christmas and encourage businesses to decorate for the holiday.

“Any one of these issues may seem very minor but they seem to be happening with more and more frequency,” Umansky said.

“Clearly the line has to be drawn someplace,” he said. “You hear from the fundamentalist right of this being a Christian nation. This is, in a way, a simplistic fostering of that concept,” Umansky said.

St. Louis Jewish Light Assistant Editor Mike Sherwin contributed to this report.