- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

The December holiday season used to be simple — when Americans could call it Christmas without offending anyone. A 2000 Gallup poll found that 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas but that such festivities have become more problematic in recent years.

The “December dilemma” over how much religious meaning can be allowed in public acknowledgement of the holiday has turned into an all-out legal battle that pits baby Jesus against an army of elves, reindeer and singing Christmas trees.

Misconceptions about the “separation of church and state” complicate the issue, says a nonprofit legal organization that is fighting to keep the Christ in Christmas.

The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) has signed up more than 700 lawyers to defend the public celebration of Christmas this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has led the campaign against the holiday, says ADF President Alan Sears.

This year, ADF is leading the first national effort to “stand up to ACLU’s censorship of Christmas,” said Mr. Sears, who served as assistant U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration before going into private practice. “The ACLU continues in legal terrorism by raging war against 96 percent of Americans who want to celebrate Christmas.”

The Gallup survey found that 90 percent of Americans are familiar with “the reason of the season” — the Christian faith’s commemoration of the birth of Jesus — and three out of four Americans say there is not enough emphasis on the religious basis for the holiday.

Yet there is no peace on earth or good will toward men for the Scrooges who say “bah, humbug” to Christmas.

In rural Elizabeth, Colo., the Colorado ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have threatened to sue Elbert County Charter School for refusing to cut religious songs from its holiday concert.

Bruce DeBoskey, regional director of the ADL, said a Jewish family expressed concern that “religion has taken dominance in the school” and that “the children felt unwelcome and unsafe.”

Principal Les Gray said the parents objected to “any and all Christian references in the program.”

“What is absolutely crystal clear is the ACLU has an agenda of radical secularization of all institutions,” said Barry Arrington, legal counsel for the school. “Schools should know they don’t have to buckle under the bullying of the ACLU.”

But the ADL’s Mr. DeBoskey said, “In no circumstances are we attempting to censor Christmas. … The idea of separation of church and state is to let religion flourish.”

In Hanover Township, N.J., some parents were angered to learn that no religious songs would be included in holiday concerts at their public schools this year.

Salvatore Sansone, school superintendent in Hanover Township, said officials worried about “what was perceived as imbalance of religious music that would be counterproductive to children.”

The school was “seeking to censor Christmas,” said Demetrios Stratis, a lawyer allied with the ADF who sent a six-page letter to township school officials explaining the relevant laws so that the officials could “ensure that the Hanover Township School Board is in compliance with the law to avoid litigation.”

Mr. Stratis said some officials wrongly think that “separation of church and state” — a phrase not found in the Constitution, he and others note — requires a ban on religious expression in schools.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution or Supreme Court cases that says schools are supposed to censor Christmas. Actually the contrary — schools have been successful in promoting Christmas.”

On Nov. 18, the Hanover board reversed its unwritten “consensus decision,” reinstating Christmas music — chiefly because of the overwhelming parental sentiment, the superintendent said.

“School systems are supposed to reflect our culture and heritage, not [be] purged in favor of secular humanism,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which supported the Hanover parents. He called the township’s decision “a real victory of maintaining religious expression.”

The ACLU did not respond to requests for comment, but its Web site states: “The free exercise clause of the First Amendment guarantees the right to practice one’s religion free of government interference. The establishment clause requires the separation of church and state. Combined, they ensure religious liberty.”

The Supreme Court has not been entirely consistent in its rulings on religion in public schools, said Sarah Barringer Gordon, who teaches history of law and religion at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“The establishment clause is really where the problem is.” she said. “If [officials] pretend Christmas has no meaning, they have denied something fundamental about the holiday. It’s a religious and secular holiday.”

School officials, she said, often do not know what religious aspects of Christmas are allowed. Some decide to remove all religious references, thinking that will avoid problems.

It was in a 1947 case that the Supreme Court first used Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” (written in a letter 12 years after the First Amendment was ratified) to interpret the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which forbids Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

But in that same 1947 case, the court declared, “State power is no more to be used to handicap religions, than it is to favor them.”

Mr. Sears of the ADF said no court has ordered school officials to censor Christmas carols or eliminate all references to Christmas.

Congress had proclaimed Christmas to be a legal public holiday, Mr. Sears noted, and said celebrating Christmas is “part of being an American.”

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