Oh, those holiday displays…

The Village of Briarcliff Manor has decided to take down a holiday display in a public park — a Christmas tree and a menorah — rather than let a village resident donate a creche.

Many will see the village as a big-time grinch, opposed to religious expression.

Some will see the village’s decision as wise — since there’s no way to satisfy everyone when it comes to which religious symbols should be allowed.

And some won’t care, thinking it’s a big fuss over nothing.

Whatever you believe, there’s no doubt that public officials are putting a lot of time and energy into trying to decide what religious symbols they can display. I had an “article”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061217/NEWS01/612170352/1018/NEWS02 in Sunday’s Journal News/LoHud.com about how public officials are dealing with requests for Nativity scenes to be included in their displays.

Here’s the pattern that’s repeating itself in community after community: Municipal officials think they have “balance” with a Christmas tree and a menorah (and maybe some other symbols). But Christian residents say that the tree is a cultural symbol. So they want a creche or Nativity scene to provide religious balance to the menorah.

But municipal officials are terribly confused about whether a creche is too religious. This is partly because the existing federal case law on this question is terribly confusing.

What happened in Briarcliff Manor? The village traditionally decorated a Christmas tree in a public park. Last year, the village purchased a menorah to provide balance. But a village resident, seeing the menorah, wanted to donate a creche to provide — you guessed it — balance.

The village said “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re satisfied with the balance we have.”

The resident sued. The resident won. A federal judge told the village, in effect, put up the creche or take down your holiday display. (The decision was released late Friday and we didn’t find out until Saturday, causing a late re-write to the beginning of my article).

The village opted to take down its holiday display on Saturday. Now there are no symbols to balance.

The village left a sign saying this: “The Village erected a Menorah and Christmas tree display in a spirit of inclusion. In response to a federal court order the entire display has been removed. We disagree with the court.”

No one really wins in a case like this. But the battles will continue, community by community.

The village, incidentally, plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel (House)

The Chabad Lubavitch “operation in Larchmont and Mamaroneck”:http://www.chabadlarchmont.com/ has only been around for a few months, but it’s already creating some Hanukkah buzz.

They’ve opened the Dreidel House on ritzy Palmer Avenue in Larchmont (1993 Palmer, to be exact), an eye-catching operation that has a giant, spinning dreidel in its window.

Inside, there’s a craft corner for kids, a collection of wooden menorahs, mosaic dreidels, Hanukkah sand art, and other attractions.

The Dreidel House will be open through Dec. 25.

The Chabad Lubavitch is an Hasidic movement dedicated to bringing wayward Jews back to observance. Their many envoys promote the holidays as a good jumping-off point. Chabad is behind many of the menorah displays across the country. And they’ve become much more visible in the Lower Hudson Valley in recent years.

There’s a large Jewish community in Larchmont and Mamaroneck, including several healthy synagogues. I guess Dreidel House is seen as one way to reach those who are less connected to Jewish life.

Happy Hanukkah….

Gonna pray now!

It’s hard enough to believe that Sylvester Stallone has made another Rocky movie (“Rocky Balboa” opens Wednesday).

But Rocky as a Christian story?

A number of Christian leaders think so. They’ve set up a website, “Rocky Resources,”:http://www.rockyresources.com/index.php to help people use the story as a “teaching, preaching or outreach opportunity.”

The website explains:

“Rocky Balboa motivates us to face our own challenges with perseverance, community support, and prayer. The story presents a dynamic opportunity for insightful discussions about where we find our courage, how we overcome losses and remain faithful, and what we define as victory.”

Among the endorsements for the (unofficial) Rocky VI:

“Life is hard, and faith can help us to face some of those challenges and issues in our past and you see Rocky do that throughout the movies, but particularly [in Rocky Balboa] it comes to kind of a peak and it was exciting to see.” Jud Wilhite – Senior Pastor, Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV

[Rocky Balboa] is a really excellent film – strong story, superior writing and directing, and easily the best, most satisfying, most mature acting Stallone has ever done. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of the Rocky movies, you need to see this one. This is a really enjoyable movie. It’s also one you can take the kids to.” Francis Maier – Chancellor, Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, Colo.

I love the first few Rocky movies as much as anyone. But don’t tell me there was any higher meaning in Rocky IV.

Holiday display confusion

I’ve been working all week on an article about the growing number of calls for Nativity scenes to be included in holiday displays on public property — town greens, libraries, schools, etc.

Boy, is there a lot of confusion out there about what public officials are allowed to include and not include in their displays. It seems that no two people are on the same page.

I hope to clear things up a bit in my article, which may run in The Journal News/LoHud.com on Sunday (these things are subject to change).

But if you’d like to read a good synopsis of what the federal courts have said to date, check out what the “Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life”:http://pewforum.org/docs/index.php?DocID=175 has to say.

The Amish may never know, but…

I wrote yesterday that the Religion Newswriters Associaton, which represents religion journalists in the secular press, chose the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., as the religion newsmakers of the year.

Today, Beliefnet.com named its “most inspiring person(s) of the year”:http://www.beliefnet.com/index/index_914.html: the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa.

Beliefnet.com explained:

“This small religious farming community, whose members do without cars and electricity, was invaded by 21st century violence when a gunman took over a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, leaving five of them dead. One of the girls who was slain, Marian Fisher, reportedly offered to be killed first to spare the others. Within hours, despite their grief and loss, the Amish had extended forgiveness to the killer and reached out to help his widow and children. Beliefnet members were amazed by this example of radical forgiveness and voted overwhelmingly for the Amish…”

Beliefnet also has an interesting list of nominees, including Warren Buffett, a genocide survivor and that young autistic basketball player who had the game of his life. Check them out…

Muslims condemn Holocaust deniers

Not surprisingly, Iran’s delusional conference of Holocaust deniers has been roundly condemned. There’s little point in sharing most of the reactions, but some may be interested in a “statement”:http://www.cair.com/default.asp?Page=articleView&id=2452&theType=NR that came from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

CAIR said this:

“No legitimate cause or agenda can ever be advanced by denying or belittling the immense human suffering caused by the murder of millions of Jews and other minority groups by the Nazi regime and its allies during World War II. Cynical attempts to use Holocaust denial as a political tool in the Middle East conflict will only serve to deepen the level of mistrust and hostility already present in that troubled region.”

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CAIR noted Iran’s bizarre inclusion of David Duke (right, at conference), who you have to figure does not like Muslims, Arabs, Persians or anyone with darker skin than his. He just hates them less than he hates Jews.

The top religion stories of ’06

The Religion Newswriters Association, to which I belong, this afternoon announced the results of a members’ poll on the “top 10 religion stories”:http://www.rna.org/pr_061213top10.php of 2006.

The top 5:

1. The Muslim reaction in several countries to the publication of Muhammad cartoons in Europe.

2. Pope Benedict XVI angers Muslims in a speech, then smooths the waters in Turkey.

3. The conflicts in the Episcopal Church over gay rights and other issues.

4. Evangelical leader Ted Haggard’s downfall after a male prostitute identifies him as a customer.

5. Candidates backed by religious conservatives perform poorly on Election Day.

My top choice was the sectarian violence in Iraq, which came in sixth in the poll.

The group’s choice as the top newsmaker(s) of the year was a bit of a surprise: the Amish people who modeled forgiveness after the schoolhouse murders of a few months ago.

I nearly voted for them myself. But at the last minute, I cast my vote for Ted Haggard. I think that the ramifications of the downfall of an influential, charismatic and moderate evangelical leader will be longer lasting.

But you have to hope that the example put forth by the Amish in the face of great tragedy will be remembered.

Walter Cronkite takes sides

America’s most trusted man doesn’t like the “religious right.”

I got one of those mass-mail fundraising letters today. It was from the “Interfaith Alliance,”:http://www.interfaithalliance.org/site/pp.asp?c=8dJIIWMCE&b=447561 a liberal to moderate group trying to find a voice in the culture wars.

On the envelope is a picture of Walter Cronkite and this quotation: “For years I kept my opinions to myself. But now I must speak out.”

I pulled out a letter marked “From the desk of Walter Cronkite,” in which the retired news anchor describes his deep concern over the “dangerous and growing influence of people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on our nation’s political leaders.”

He also writes:

“As a concerned person of faith, however, I have watched with increasing alarm as the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups manipulate religion to further their intolerant, political agendas.”

He writes that even politicians who dislike the religious right “have been scared into submission.”

Pretty strong words from a man who was long respected for his tell-it-like-it-is neutrality. One has to wonder whether he will be criticized as another partisan voice in the culture wars. Or will he get a pass because he’s Walter Cronkite?

Marking the solstice

It’s certainly not for everybody, but…

“The Chapel”:http://hudrivpres.org/HRP%20Maps/Croton%20Falls.pdf in Croton Falls, a small, progressive, Presbyterian church, will celebrate at 10 a.m. on Sunday the winter solstice. The solstice, the shortest day of the year, will be Thursday the 21st.

More and more progressive churches have started to celebrate the solstice in recent years.

As The Chapel explains:

“The Winter Solstice was celebrated in pre-Christian times in Europe by people highly dependent on the cycles of the sun to secure their summer harvest. When the sun sunk low on the horizon they celebrated the Winter Solstice as a sacred festival to urge the sun to return. With the arrival of Christianity, the winter solstice was combined with the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ as the carrier of light to the world.”

The Chapel’s minister, the Rev. Hans Hallundbaek, said:

“Approaching the shortest day of the year we come together to reconfirm our trust in not only the sun’s return, but also the peace and joy we long for in our hearts and minds.�

The celebration will include music, poetry and a ritual “reflecting the darkness of winter, followed by a jubilant return of the light.”

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in NYC will celebrate the solstice with a series of “concerts”:http://www.stjohndivine.org/news_performances.html tomorrow, Friday and Saturday.

Rabbis take aim at human rights abuses

A group called “Rabbis for Human Rights”:http://www.rhr-na.org/ concluded a three-day conference in NYC today on Judaism and human rights.

The gathering, which brough together rabbis from each Jewish movement, focused in large part on taking a stand against “U.S.-sponsored torture.” The rabbis group is asking rabbis and lay Jews to sign statements against the torture of military detainees.

In addition, 143 rabbis who took part in the conference signed a letter denouncing the demolition by Israelis of a Palestinian family’s home in East Jerusalem yesterday. The home was demolished because of the lack of permit, the group said.

Today, 20 rabbis delivered the letter to the Israeli consulate.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, conference chair and board member of Rabbis for Human Rights, said:

“I am moved to tears that I will be able to tell the family tomorrow that rabbis from Israel and across North America were so moved by this loss that they committed on the spot pledges to rebuild the Dari family’s home.”

it will be interesting to see how the larger Jewish community reacts to participants at the “First North American Rabbinic Conference on Judaism and Human Rights” using the gathering to point out Israeli abuses.

Incidentally, the conference also announced the formation of Imams for Human Rights and Dialogue, a new Muslim group. The group will be led by “Imam Yahya Hendi,”:http://www.imamyahyahendi.com/ the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and a progressive Muslim leader who is committed to interfaith talking.