Cities need to navigate their holiday celebration displays of “faith” in the public square carefully. Cities sometimes are so careful with citizen display requests that nothing gets done. Citizens come forward with ideas, want to be heard and have their request considered. All too often it is the delivery by the requestor that fails, but the idea may have merit.
Recently a citizen came forward and expressed, at a Federal Way City Council meeting during the public comments session, a desire to have a menorah included in the decorations of the city’s annual Christmas holidays celebration. Decorations celebrating what ostensibly are religious holidays on public grounds often become contentious issues.
I am not suggesting that the city should or should not add a menorah to their holiday decorations in Town Square Park. I am suggesting that they should be open-minded to the possibility. The city should do the research and address any concerns from a legal perspective for including or denying other religious symbols to be part of the seasonal holiday display with the goal of keeping the presentation secular.
The city navigated a path to fly the Pride Flag during Pride Month and without question offended some in our community. Our city is familiar with the challenges of trying to be respectful to all groups knowing that whatever decision they make, someone will be unhappy. They did their research, had internal and external discussions, and created a flag policy.
Citizens tend to want what they want with a sense of immediacy, but cities are painfully slow and deliberate — and Federal Way likes change at a glacial pace. It is baked into our city’s DNA — adversity is not us.
The place for having the discussion on adding a menorah to the holiday display is the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Commission. It is my understanding that when the request was made during the commission’s October meeting, a conversation on the topic was quickly dismissed because it was not an agenda item. The idea got trapped by procedure, but it is something the city should discuss as part of an overall holiday decorations policy.
It is interesting that some cities in our region such as Bellevue, Kirkland and Mercer Island have chosen to include a menorah in their holiday displays.
The Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue multiple times, and within our society it seems to be culturally fluid. The Freedom Forum Institute, in an article discussing this issue, stated, “the 3rd Circuit has held that a display depicting a Hanukkah menorah, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa candles, a sled and Frosty the Snowman, among other things, was constitutional. ”
The citizen advocate for including the menorah identified her reasons for the inclusion request as a way of embracing our community’s diversity and suggested that adding this symbol to the city’s holiday display is a positive way to show that anti-semitism is not welcome in our city. The converse is also a possibility — it could make our annual holiday display a target for anti-semitism. Fighting prejudice comes with risk, but this risk is within the realm of being a city and community responsibility collectively.
While Federal Way’s Jewish population is small, as a city we are ethnically as well as religiously diverse. Those elements contain friction points for those who believe differently and may feel that all this diversity and politically correct inclusivity is offensive to their traditions.
Can a policy be crafted to be universally inclusive of allowing some non-secular symbols to be secular enough to be inoffensive in the public square? This is a complicated and emotional issue and should not be brushed aside without any consideration for future inclusion. The city and its staff may feel burdened with pubic initiated ideas, and this request may not feel like one that needs to be addressed, but it does.
As residents of an increasingly diverse city, we need to figure out how to embrace the word “welcome” in everything we do. We need to assure that when the holiday display policy gets crafted, it works to exclude symbols of prejudice, hate as well as the religious symbols considered to be more technically overt or directly non-secular.
The goal is to build an inclusive community welcoming of all. Being identified as the fifth most diverse city in the state means that our welcome mat challenge is huge and it is real. It also means that many of Federal Way’s longtime ultra-conservative residents who feel resentful of the changes that have occurred over the last 20-plus years may become more frustrated if symbols not to their liking are included.
This request may have gotten off to a poor start, but it is a request that is not likely to go away. So, with respect to those involved, at least consider the possibility of embracing additional symbols in a more inclusive holiday celebration. Santa brings the gift of kindness, generosity and warmth to all — regardless of race, creed or ethnicity.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.