Mary Adamski View from
the Pew

Mary Adamski

City event keeps
the faiths

The nativity scene is up on the City Hall lawn again. Those might be fighting words in another place. Religious displays on public grounds around the country have been removed by court order after challenges citing the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion.

But Wahiawa Door of Faith Church has installed its manger scene a few steps from the front door of Oahu municipal government. There it will remain for the Christmas season during the month-long secular holiday spectacular Honolulu City Lights.

The birth of Jesus has been depicted there since 1992, when a Pearl City church member convinced former Mayor Frank Fasi that the Christmas story ought to be represented amid the ever-expanding exhibition featuring the Claus couple, elves, snow people, toys and animal characters.

The religious display is OK with advocates for the separation of church and state. Oh, it was challenged here, as in other venues. The resolution, without resorting to bulldozer or banishment, is a reassuring affirmation that diversity is something Hawaii can appreciate and respect -- despite recent news headlines and the spread of an alarming polarization between church "liberals" and "fundamentalists."

Janelle Dryden works on the manger display for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on the lawn of Honolulu Hale.

In 1997 the American Atheists threatened a discrimination suit, raising the point that a Buddhist display, which Fasi had permitted two years earlier, had a less desirable location on the lawn than the Christian booth.

The atheists and the city administration reached a Solomon-like compromise that gives nonprofit organizations a chance for expression in the Honolulu City Lights show. A lottery was established. Applicants must meet some organizational and tax status criteria. Five are selected in a drawing each fall.

Door of Faith will have the company of two other Christian groups this year, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Campus Ministry at University of Hawaii. The neighbors will be the Baha'i Faith, which teaches the oneness of God and all religions, and the Alliance for Traditional Marriages and Values, whose display "celebrates the sacred institution of marriage as the union between a man and a woman," said spokesman Mike Gabbard.

In years past, Buddha's enlightenment has been depicted in a Bodhi Day scene, and Jews have lighted candles on a menorah to celebrate Hanuk-kah. Children's advocacy organizations have made their message known, and so has Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays-Oahu.

Hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors visit Honolulu City Lights, welcoming the alternative to malls as a source for holiday spirit. Fasi planted the seed for Oahu's version of a winter wonderland when he called for a tall lighted Christmas tree in front of Honolulu Hale in 1985. Longtime city communications director Carol Costa leads a crew of city workers who have embellished the tradition every year with the blessing of Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Congregants from the Wahiawa Door of Faith Church have built a Nativity scene at Honolulu Hale.

There's no way to gauge how many of the holiday hordes stop in the darkish grotto, to the right of City Hall and back off the sidewalk, where private groups get assigned spaces for faith and social messages. Built by volunteers on short budgets, the displays aren't much of a match for the big, glittery midway.

The Door of Faith's Nativity set is the kind you find on sale in the hardware stores, although the Rev. Steve Zarriello and congregants worked to enhance it with a palm frond-roofed stable.

Good Shepherd volunteer Charles Gooch designed a stack of wrapped gifts on which Jesus is depicted as "the central gift to the world."

"It's a good reminder to everybody why we celebrate Christmas," said Gooch, expressing the sentiments of other organizations, which are just satisfied that they can express their point.

A wedding cake topped by figures of a man and a woman is the Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Values art, with a sign that reads: "The marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain. For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is Love."

Gabbard said, "In these uncertain times, I think it is important to remind our community that traditional marriage is the foundation of our society."

The unwritten subtext will be recognized by members of many churches struggling with issues of how far to go in recognizing homosexuals' rights.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the Hawaiian Islands unwrapped a display it has used before, a lighted "tree of humanity" with images of people from all over the world surrounded by a "garden of humanity" with faces in the flowers.

"The message is that mankind is one," said Lynne Ellen Hollinger. "Baha'is believe even further that God is one and religion is one."

Well, I think there should be a bright marquee over the quiet little corner, neon hollering "Diversity Celebrated Here." Or "Hallelujah for Freedom of Speech."

Credits for the reasonable resolution of a dispute ought to be there in lights, for the atheists group -- which morphed into Hawaii Citizens for Separation of State and Church and went on to more rancorous episodes of keeping their world safe from religion -- and for the government officials who didn't just throw the baby out with an administrative order.

"Wisdom Wins" would fit nicely on the marquee. But no, considering how close this is to the political palace, that would be carrying freedom of expression a bit too far.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Religion Calendar

Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
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