Sunday, November 20, 2011

Santa vs the Establishment Claus

In Charleston, South Carolina, an outpatient facility declared that they would no longer be allowing Frank Cloyes, an elderly volunteer, to dress up as Santa Claus and visit children sitting through chemotherapy treatments. The hospital spokesperson explained that; “Because of our state affiliation, we decided not to have a Santa presence this year”. She credited efforts to express consideration for the people who frequent the cancer center that many be of non-Christian faiths and who might be offended by the Santa presence. After outrage from the community, the hospital reversed their decision two days later and decided to “welcome Santa again this year”. Reports claim that the hospital has decided to allow all traditional holiday activities reflecting all beliefs, including Santa, to make appearances because of the recognized emotional benefits to patients.

While the issue of whether this practice of allowing a Santa to make appearances as a state medical facility wasn't considered by a court because the decision was reversed so quickly and no lawsuit has begun, the question still remains: Does allowing a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus to visit children at state medical facility to offer “Christmas cheer” violate the Establishment Clause? Was the hospital valid in its concerns that, as a state institution, Santa visits might be seen as inappropriate?

I believe that if the Court ruled on the constitutionality of the volunteer’s Santa visits the practice would not be found to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In Lynch v. Donnelly, the Court acknowledged that it was possible for a religious symbol, a crèche, to be present without advocating a particular religious message, or violating the Establishment Clause. I argue that Santa Claus is an even less directly religious symbol than a nativity scene; a nativity scene explicitly displays Jesus and the birth of a theistic idol, while Santa Claus professes no specific religious message. Many equate Santa Claus as a generic symbol of cultural Christmas; a mythical creature comparable to the Tooth Fairy. Even the PR rep for the hospital was quoted saying that; “We are very well aware that Santa is not a religious figure”.

Also in Lynch v. Donnely, the Court found that the display had “legitimate secular purposes”. Like the crèche Pawtucket, Frank Cloyes shares the purpose of spreading holiday cheer, arguably in an even more compelling state interest since this Santa serves to entertain patients at a cancer center while receiving chemotherapy.

Important to the constitutionality of this practice is that Frank Cloyes is not a hospital employee, nor is he paid. He paid for his own costume rental, and presumably, anyone who decides to dress up in a costume and visit patients in this hospital would also be welcome. I argue that if volunteers are allowed to dress up as clowns or rabbits to visit patients with the goal of cheering them up, then there shouldn’t be an issue with a Santa Claus, or another secular-ish (?) symbol of Hannukah or Kwanzaa, as suggested by Fox News.

While the Santa visit appears constitutional under the Establishment Clause, at issue here is the way the Cancer Center reacted to and reversed the ban. An article explains how Hollings Cancer Center reversed the decision after “a firestorm of yuletide controversy”. Although the ban may have not been necessary in the first place, it’s even more disrespectful to the patients at the hospital who may have been bothered by the Santa visits because of their religious beliefs that their discomfort was overruled by the majority. In any Establishment case regarding a majority religious celebration like Christmas, the decision would quickly be reversed if the State gave in to protests by the majority. The Establishment Clause exists to protect the minority, not the majority.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Pamela that this act would not violate the Establishment Clause. There is no state sponsorship of the volunteer. Additionally, his goal is to promote health and well-being through spreading cheer, not to convert the patients to Christianity. The Lynch v Donnelly precedent of religious images becoming secularized is an important factor here. Santa is certainly a more secular figure than a creche. Regardless, the goal of cheering up patients in a hospital is an entirely secular goal which should not be restricted.

kanderson said...

agree with both. this does not establish the establishment clause. this is working to further the happiness of individuals during the winter time, versus converting them to the Christian fellowship. Santa is not a religious character. the holiday that it belongs to does have religious meaning, for sure, no one can denote that. but the character of santa is someone has become secular within the context of our nation. patients should be cheered up. whether it is through santa or whether it is through a dog. both are secular and do not establish any religion.

Allison S said...

I agree with Pam and the above comments. The purpose of this man dressing up as Santa is to promote happiness in sick children. He is not trying to push his religious beliefs onto the patients. Had he brought bible verses or sang hymns dressed as Santa then there would be an issue. However, since Santa he is merely trying to promote holiday cheer this is not violate the establishment clause.

Justin E said...

Santa is a secular symbol of Christmas and has no religious affiliation. I say this because Christmas has become a tradition all across America with Santa and his reindeer. Having said this, I believe Santa presence does not violate the establishment clause. Like Harry said, reflecting back on past cases, Lynch v Donnelly ruled in favor of the town and that decoration involved a creche. Referring to past case decisions, I believe having Santa will definitely be seen as a secular figure in this case.

Callie B said...

Similar to many of the other comments, I do not believe that having a private individual volunteer his time in a privately rented Santa suit would at all be an establishment of religion. Lynch v Donnelly upheld the constitutionality of a creche and Santa is an even less religious symbol. While I am a strict separationalist, it is fairly alarming to see the paranoia about religious establishment almost prohibit a harmless act of good will.