By RICHARD N. OSTLING
The Associated Press
(AP) It’s weeks before Thanksgiving but already interest groups are preparing for an intense year of conflict over Christmas observances by cities and public schools, with one conservative group lining up hundreds of attorneys to work on the issue.
Communities and courts have long fielded protests against municipal creche displays and school Nativity pageants, based on strict views of church-state separation and sensitivity toward religious minorities.
In recent years, however, local disputes have extended to carol singing, wordless instrumental music, Christmas trees and decorations, classroom visits by Santa Claus, distribution of Christmas-themed cards and gifts, “Merry Christmas!” greetings and designation of Christmas on official calendars.
This week, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., announced that its 800 cooperating attorneys have volunteered to handle without fee complaints about “improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property.”
In 2004, the second year of its “Christmas Project,” affiliated attorneys sent a detailed memo on ADF’s view of Christmas and constitutional law to 7,000 school districts. The 2005 effort, already under way, adds city officials.
A similar information campaign is being waged by Liberty Counsel, another Christian legal group based in Orlando, Fla., and the Christian Educators Association International, representing 8,000 public school teachers.
The topic also is the subject of a polemic by the Fox News Channel’s John Gibson that is selling briskly: “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.”
Gibson, who calls himself a “non-practicing Christian,” notes that his Jewish son researched the book. He says agitation against Christmas observance comes primarily from “secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists and liberal, guilt-wracked Christians.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is targeted in another new book, “The ACLU vs. America: Exposing the Agenda to Redefine Moral Values” by ADF’s Alan Sears and Craig Osten. The ACLU doesn’t initiate all the complaints and lawsuits, the authors say, but it created the environment for widespread anti-Christmas efforts.
Even as Christmas is suppressed, these writers complain, schools sometimes encourage Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa observances.
ACLU religion director Jeremy Gunn was in meetings and unavailable, a spokeswoman said. But an official ACLU bulletin says the Constitution forbids school observances “that promote or emphasize the religious significance” of Christmas, but not aspects “that have become part of our country’s secular culture.” The ACLU has repeatedly fought displays with religious themes on public property.
Under Freedom Forum First Amendment Center sponsorship, the ACLU has come to agreement with evangelical and other religious groups on minimal rules about school religious issues. On holidays, the accord says schools may celebrate secular aspects and “objectively teach about their religious aspects” but not observe them as religious events.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also endorsed the accord.
Spokesman Rob Boston said “about 95 percent of the whining from the far right” over Christmas is for fundraising purposes. “They’re trying to get people worked up so they will think Christmas is being removed from public life,” Boston said. “There isn’t any evidence that’s happening.”
Americans United believes “public schools aren’t the appropriate place to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. That’s a job for the home and the church,” he said. The Supreme Court’s rule that towns’ Nativity displays must add secular symbols proves that if people “want a truly religious experience, city hall is not the place,” Boston added.
Michael Johnson of Shreveport, La., an ADF staff lawyer, says his group merely wants to “defend the rights of the 96 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas” and is not trying to evangelize. He thinks ACLU’s goal is “ultimately to silence people of faith, and in many cases people of the Christian faith.”
The Rev. Charles Nestor, an Assemblies of God minister in Lakeland, Fla., supports the legal fight. But his Web site also promotes “Operation Nativity”, urging Christians to “flood the country” with Nativity displays at their homes, churches and businesses.