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The politics of Christmas

|Written By Jennifer McPhee

The now-famous Christmas tree controversy sparked when Justice Marion Cohen banished an artificial Christmas tree from the lobby of the Ontario Court of Justice at 311 Jarvis St. in Toronto may lead to a policy about the display of religious and cultural symbols in Ontario courthouses.

Cohen, responsible for administrative matters in the courthouse in question, was widely criticized in the media by court staff, members of the public, and religious groups. One blogger, also a columnist at a Toronto paper, referred to her as the "judge who stole Christmas."

Ontario Bar Association president James Morton sent an open letter to Attorney General Michael Bryant asking him to create a policy that promotes a greater understanding of diverse religions and cultures by allowing displays and symbols in Ontario courthouses.

"Inclusiveness and understanding are core values of Canadian society and our justice system, which are only enhanced by the sharing of religious symbols between members of ethnically and religiously diverse communities," wrote Morton. "Barring Christmas trees and all other religious displays from the public's view in our courthouses does exactly the opposite. This controversy serves only to weaken the public's faith in our legal system, which must always be viewed as fair, just, and reasoned."

Morton says the issue is an emotional one that has touched a nerve, and he's received a flood of positive responses to his letter.

"I've been involved in a number of things that have been covered in the media," he says. "I've never (had) as much response from people I know."

Bryant plans to discuss whether a policy is necessary with Chief Justice Brian Lennox of the Ontario Court of Justice at a regularly scheduled meeting in January.

"Either this is anomalous event that led to some public debate, which was probably quite fruitful, or it's something that we need to consider a policy on," says Bryant. "I suspect it's probably the former, but that's something I'll certainly be talking with Chief Justice Lennox about."

Morton believes the situation may prove to be a good thing.

"It has sparked debate and a discussion about the use and display of religious symbols and cultural symbols in courthouses. It may lead ultimately to a proper policy that allows such displays in a respectful and appropriate fashion which would, overall, be a very good thing."

Unknown vigilantes briefly restored the tree to its original position of glory last week before Cohen ordered it back to its downgraded locale around the corner and down the hall. And for the rest of the season, the tree will remain in this spot.

"I think it would be an overreaction for anybody to imagine a habeas corpus application to free the tree," says Bryant. "But I think as long as people's voices are heard, then it has the important effect of setting forth which is the right way to go, which is to celebrate these holidays and not hide them around the corner."

Bryant adds that, had the judge not posted a memo about the tree, people would probably have assumed the tree's transfer was simply a fire safety precaution.

However, being a Christian in a Jewish family, Bryant is no stranger to Christmas tree politics.

"We always go celebrate Christmas with my parents where there is a tree already," he says. "But that's the official Abramovitch-Bryant policy. As for the official Ontario policy, I'll talk with Chief Justice Lennox about that."

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