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Christmas ‘holiday tree’ controversy in Woodcliff Lake

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A Woodcliff Lake councilman said he’s prepared to go to court to fight the renaming of the borough Christmas tree to a “Community Tree” or “Holiday Tree.” That’s if the ACLU doesn’t get there first.

  • NEWSBREAK: Woodcliff Lake Mayor Jeffrey Goldsmith told CLIFFVIEW PILOT this afternoon that what was originally billed variously as a borough “Holiday” or “Community” tree lighting has been renamed a “Christmas tree” event. READ MORE….

As a Christian, Councilman Michael Struk said, he is “insulted that my heritage and beliefs are shrouded by someone’s fear of political correctness and what I perceive to be the furtherance of an anti-Christan movement in general.

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“If the Menorah is celebrated by name and a ‘Christmas Tree’ is renamed … I will seek a legal remedy,” Struk said.

The New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union has been contacted and is reviewing the matter, CLIFFVIEW PILOT has learned.

“If we are not lighting a Christmas tree, at the very least we should be doing a ‘Holiday Lighting’ done at the same time,” said Carlos Rendo, a Woodcliff Lake attorney. “This is the way Ridgewood does it and it’s never a controversy.”

Mayor Jeffrey Goldsmith originally sent out fliers announcing the Dec. 7 lighting of what was the town’s “Holiday Tree,” along with notice of a Menorah lighting on Dec. 12, both at the borough pool entrance at Woodcliff Avenue and Werimus Road.

Struk said the name apparently has been changed to “Community Tree,” which he found equally objectionable.

The special guest at the Menorah lighting is Rabbi Dov Drizin of Valley Chabad.

The special guest listed for the “Holiday/Community Tree” lighting: Santa Claus.

The flier “is very problematic,” Rendo emphasized. “It can be viewed as a town that is … promoting one religious symbol over another.”

Goldsmith, a senior partner with the TBH Group at Morgan Stanley in Ridgewood, was in a meeting with a client this morning and said he would get back to CLIFFVIEW PILOT once he had the opportunity.

Courts have ruled that any municipality that either erects, or allows someone to erect, a religious display on public property must allow all religious displays, “so as to not unconstitutionally endorse on religion over another,” according to William G. Dressel, Jr., executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

“Certain symbols, while associated with Christmas, are secular and not religious,” he said.

“A purely religious display, especially one related to a single religion, is almost certainly unconstitutional,” Dressel said.

“Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas,” a federal court ruled in 1989. “The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas holiday season serves to emphasize the secular component of the message communicated by other elements of an accompanying holiday display, including the Chanukah menorah.”

Locally, the  “leading case,” Dressel said, involved Jersey City.

A display in front of City Hall — with a nativity scene and menorah — violated the First Amendement because it didn’t include other symbols, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals found .

A holiday display the following year passed constitutional muster, however: In addition to the crèche and menorah, it had Kwanzaa symbols, a sled, figures of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, and signs “that indicated the city celebrated the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its residents,” Dressel said.

All were roughly the same size and prominence, he added.

“A display containing symbols from different religions, as well as secular symbols of the holidays, is likely constitutional,” Dressel said. “The constitutionality of such a display is further enhanced if a secular message is also included; for example, the message in the Jersey City display celebrating the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its residents, or another display in the Allegheny case that consisted of a menorah, a Christmas tree….”

He added a warning: “The secular symbols and messages should not be included merely as an attempt to legitimize the religious aspects. To that end, they should be at least as prominent as any religious displays.”

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