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'Merry Holiday' to all and to some a Christmas fight

By Frank James and Jason George, Chicago Tribune, November 30, 2005

Fair warning to any public official who renames a Christmas tree a "holiday tree": You may get a call from one of hundreds of lawyers lined up by Christian legal groups to defend Christmas against those they say are bent on purging it from the holiday season.

Two groups, Liberty Counsel, affiliated with Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Alliance Defense Fund, say they have almost 1,600 lawyer-volunteers between them ready to battle what some conservative Christians view as a secular movement against nativity scenes, Christmas trees and even the greeting "Merry Christmas."

Started three years ago, this year's campaign will be the groups' largest effort yet. But the lawyers may have their work cut out for them, if interviews with Chicagoans on Tuesday are any indication. According to them, public use of the phrase "Merry Christmas" is already going the way of the one-horse open sleigh.

"I used to say Merry Christmas but now I don't," said Candice Barrera, a hospital therapist who was admiring the nativity scene in Daley Plaza.

"It's drilled into you that you need to be culturally sensitive," she said. "For my family I still say Merry Christmas."

As a plaza security guard, Ocie Spruill has all day to admire what the city of Chicago calls an 87-foot "holiday tree," but even he can't decide what to call it.

"It's got lights and a star--it's a Christmas tree," he said confidently.

Just then, fellow security guard Steven Flores started giving Spruill a hard time about being sensitive and inclusive.

"OK, wait a minute," Spruill said, looking up at the glowing lights. "It's a holiday tree."

The Christian legal groups are trying to get the word out that federal courts have said it's legal to acknowledge Christmas even in public places like schools and in front of government buildings, so long as such displays meet certain requirements.

"We're not going to try to force people to mouth the words `Merry Christmas,'" said Matt Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel. "What we are going to do is educate that it's OK to say `Merry Christmas,' Christmas is constitutional and in those egregious cases where there's blatant constitutional violations, we will litigate."

Book decries `plot'

Some Christians and conservatives have complained on cable TV and the Internet about an assault on Christmas. The title of a new book by Fox News Channel anchor John Gibson is titled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse than You Thought."

Others find the alleged war on Christmas more a manufactured problem meant to rally conservatives than a reality.

"I think it's disingenuous to say that Christmas is threatened just because government is not promoting your view or your favorite way of promoting the holiday," said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Commission for Religious Liberty, which stresses church-state separation.

As proof of the war, Christian groups point to recent controversies such as Boston naming its official Christmas tree a "holiday tree"--a label that has caused far more of a furor in Boston than in Chicago.

Donnie Hatt, the Canadian logger who has long donated a tree to Boston, said that if he had known the city would re-label his gift, he would have thrown it into a wood chipper instead. Trying to quell the uproar, Mayor Thomas Menino issued a statement: "I consider this tree to be a Christmas tree."

Congress likely avoided a similar dustup this season when House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wrote the U.S. Capitol architect to "suggest" the architect return to a decades-old practice and call this year's official Capitol Hill conifer a Christmas tree instead of using the more generic term in use since the 1990s.

Religious songs

Among the complaints received by the Alliance Defense Fund this holiday season, according to Mike Johnson, a senior counsel with the group: Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., told a choir director that his junior and high school students scheduled to sing at a university holiday festival couldn't perform religious songs. The school relented, Johnson said, after being contacted by his organization.

Another complaint to the Alliance Defense Fund came from the Jackson County, Ga., school system, where some administrators, teachers, parents and students got the impression that top officials in the district had banned religious Christmas songs, displays and even jewelry like a pin that said "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."

"The interesting thing about each of these cases is they're all in red states," Johnson said, referring to the popular term that describes more conservative states that typically vote Republican in national elections. "That's rural Georgia. That's the last place you would think political correctness would rule the day, but that's apparently what's going on."

Rene Abadie, a Southeastern spokesman, could not confirm the incident at the time of an interview. But he acknowledged the school has an official "holiday tree" and a non-religious campus lighting ceremony.

"We are a state institution," he said. "We have students from all faiths, from more than 60 different nations. We try to be unified and everything and not take a strong religious tone on this sort of thing."

Keith Everson, the Jackson County school district's assistant superintendent for human resources, said district officials didn't ban songs, displays and jewelry. They merely reminded school officials to be inclusive of other faiths.

"What we're asking our folks is if your chorus programs include songs about Christmas, you respect other religions too, and include songs about Hanukkah, for example," Everson said. Mixed court rulings

The confusion may be understandable, since the Supreme Court has ruled that recognizing religious holidays is fine in some instances but not in others. For instance, the court has ruled a creche in a courthouse unconstitutional because that would make it appear government was endorsing a particular religion.

But the inclusion of symbols from different religions in a display would be legal, as would a government-provided display that mixed religious and secular symbols like reindeer.

"The whole area is a bit confusing, and it could get more confusing if Judge [Samuel] Alito becomes Justice Alito," said Rodney Blackman, a constitutional law scholar at DePaul University's law school. "He seems to be quite supportive of religion, and he probably would tilt the court in favor of allowing religious displays by themselves without anything to secularize them or show tolerance for other religions."

In downtown Chicago, the Cosi sandwich shop is secular.

"We say happy holidays," said manager Shannon Auwaerter.

"We're trying to keep it non-denominational," she added. "You don't want to alienate anybody."

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