Washington is ablaze with lights, and thousands of them twinkle on the Ellipse, an oval plot designed by Pierre L'Enfant 200 years ago as the back yard of the White House. When President Thomas Jefferson, mindful of the nation's egalitarian origins, heard L'Enfant's plan he said no, it was land that belonged to the people. He designated that it be used as a park for everybody.
Visitors to Washington can now see on the Ellipse the gorgeous national Christmas tree, which was permanently planted in 1978 and is decorated with tiny lights as the season demands. Not far away stands a 32-foot tall Hanukkah Menorah, which was lighted at sundown on Tuesday, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday known as the "Festival of Lights." Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a band of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrians in 165 B.C. that enabled the Jews to re-enter their temple in Jerusalem. The lamp in the temple known as the "everlasting light" had only enough oil for one night's fire, but miraculously burned for eight days, allowing time for more oil to arrive.
These popular icons of religious decoration - the tree and the menorah - are as much a part of the American culture as of the culture of Christians and Jews, brightening the dark winter nights with festive illumination. The lights lift the spirit and testify to the ways Americans live together, honoring different religious heritages brought to these shores by our ancestors.
They remind us that the animating spirit of the Judeo-Christian origins of our democratic government is alive and well despite attempts by those who quail at the very mention of God to eliminate all mention of faith in the public square.
One silly example of the misunderstanding of what separation of church and state means is at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, Calif., near San Francisco. Several parents complained when Steven J. Williams, a fifth-grade teacher who is an evangelical Christian, introduced President Bush's call for a national day of prayer as an example of a presidential proclamation. They complained again when the teacher led a discussion about the constitutional controversy over the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The school principal worried that the teacher, in citing public documents containing such words as "endowed by their Creator" and "divine Providence," was proselytizing for his Christian faith. She required that he submit the proclamations and citations for screening before he introduced them to his class. Then certain documents were barred from his classroom.