DURHAM, NH (CBS) – They turned on the tree lights in Durham, NH last weekend, but it may be the last time it brightens Memorial Park. The town is now asking itself, is the tree a religious symbol? And if it is, should all religions and traditions be welcomed on public land? That’s going to be the New Year debate.
Some people call it a Christmas tree, others a holiday tree. For decades the town of Durham has ushered in this season by lighting up an evergreen in a public park.
“We’ve viewed the tree for many years, since I’ve been here, as a holiday tree, a non-denominational tree,” says Durham Town Manager Todd Selig.
This year a local rabbi asked Selig for permission to include a 10 foot menorah at Memorial Park to celebrate the 8 days of Hanukkah. Selig said no, expressing concerns about vandalism and more.
“The broader concern though was, do we want to open the public square up to all religions?” Selig says.
“This whole thing is not really about us. It’s more about the entire community and all different cultures and faiths,” says Rabbi Berel Slavaticki of the Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center in Durham. He was allowed to display the Menorah at a different park, but only for the first night of Hanukkah. “Every religion and every faith should be able to publicly practice their faith,” Rabbi Slavaticki adds.
The town’s Human Rights Commission took up this separation of church and state issue, and recommends the town end the tree tradition. “The intent of the commission was either all or nothing,” says Commission chair Kitty Marple.
The town is now looking at alternatives. “That probably do not include the lighting of a Christmas tree,” Marple adds. One possibility, a non-religious winter carnival.
Of course, they could decide to maintain the current tradition or open up the park to other religious symbols. This is not a new issue. People have long argued against using public resources for a Christmas tree. But it looks like the town of Durham will be making changes next year.