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Religious-Liberty Groups Fight the Anti-Christmas Trend

December 13, 2004

The annual assault on Christmas comes in many forms. First, there is the barrage of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is reliably offended by almost any representation of Christianity in the public square. Small towns, facing the prospect of expensive litigation over religious displays on public property, often cave in simply out of fear. Part of the intimidation is that if the towns lose, they must pay the legal fees of the ACLU.

But now religious-liberties legal groups provide attorneys to stand up to the ACLU. The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund won in federal court last month in a suit filed by the ACLU against the city of Cranston, R.I. Cranston allows religious and secular displays of all kinds on the front lawn of City Hall. The ACLU argued that this was a church-state violation, but U.S. District Judge William Smith ruled that nothing in the evidence “reveals or even remotely supports an inference that a religious purpose was behind the creation of the limited public forum.”

Another standard anti-Christmas maneuver is to argue that all references to Christmas in public schools are suspect, while references to Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, for whatever reason, are not. The policy of the 1,200 New York City public schools is that no purely religious symbols are allowed, only ones that have a “secular dimension,” such as Christmas trees, menorahs, and the star and crescent. But the star and crescent is hardly secular. It is the symbol of Islam. And the menorah, though now losing some of its religious significance, is a symbol of the Jewish faith. The Thomas More Law Center filed suit on behalf of a Roman Catholic mother of two public-school students, saying, in effect, that if the city’s public schools are allowing brief and educational use of religious symbols for Muslims and Jews, then the Christian creche should be permitted, too. Last February, U.S. District Judge Charles Sifton ruled for the school system. The case is under appeal. The creche, for now, remains banned.

Like New York’s schools, the town of Bay Harbor Islands in Florida refuses to allow a Nativity scene on public property but has menorahs and the Star of David on lampposts and permitted a local synagogue to erect a 14-foot-high menorah on public land.

A fairly new tactic in the Christmas wars can be called the sensitive person’s veto. In 2000, the city of Eugene, Ore., banned Christmas trees on public property, then allowed firefighters to put up a tree on Christmas Eve and Christmas, with the provision that if one person objected, the tree had to come down. The next year, Kensington, Md., banned Santa Claus from a tree-lighting ceremony because of two complaints. So the city’s most sensitive person was, in effect, allowed to make policy.

The sensitivity argument — that any reference to Christmas at all might make someone feel bad — is responsible for the spread of the anti-Christmas campaign from religious symbols to the purely secular and harmless trappings of the season, including red poinsettias, red-and-green cookies, holiday lights, and Rudolph the reindeer.

Santa Claus, originally based on a Christian saint but no more religious than Kermit the Frog, is considered much too divisive and hurtful to non-Christian students in many schools. The principal of Braden Middle School in Florida said, “You won’t see any Christmas trees around here. We keep it generic.” Some principals and teachers around the country even ban the word “Christmas.” In Rochester, Minn., two girls were reprimanded for saying “Merry Christmas” in a school skit.

And though Christmas trees are considered secular when they are useful in warding off Nativity scenes, the word “Christmas” is often removed by panicky officials, thus producing multicultural trees, holiday trees, community trees, care trees and giving trees. The White House still has a Christmas tree, but Congress has a Capitol Holiday Tree.

Accommodating all traditions is a worthy goal. But a broad movement to erase the word “Christmas” is an extraordinary development in a culture that is more than 80 percent Christian. How much more of this is the public willing to tolerate? William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, points out that an elementary school in New Hampshire declared that December is a gift-giving month but couldn’t explain why or how it got to be a giving time of year, since it refused to use the word “Christmas.”

The South Orange/Maplewood, N.J., school district banned religious Christmas songs, even in instrumental versions. In Florida, an elementary school concert included songs about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but offered not a single note of Christmas music. A recent winter parade in Denver looked very much like a Christmas event, except for one small thing: Every reference to Christmas was banned.

Unless believers and religious-liberties groups begin to push back, the anti-Christmas trend will prevail in the public square.

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