Crèche Clash

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First Things - Web Exclusives

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Here’s an update on a story I covered in this space two years ago: the Christmas Wars in France. For the past couple of years, plaintiffs in France have brought challenges against the display of Christmas crèches on public property. Plaintiffs argue that such displays violate the principle of laïcité—the French version of the separation of church and state.

Laïcité is a complicated concept that outsiders can easily misunderstand. Americans usually translate it as “secularism” and think of it as a particularly strict version of our own Establishment Clause jurisprudence, but it’s not that simple. Originally understood in expressly anti-Catholic terms, laïcité still connotes, for some French citizens, the idea that public life should categorically exclude religion. For others, it means something more like a benevolent impartiality toward religion. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, famously advocated a “positive laïcité” that properly acknowledged religion’s contributions—in practice, mostly Catholic—to French history and culture.