- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005


By John Gibson Sentinel, $24.95, 186 pages

This is a book about the First Amendment, specifically where its two provisions about church and state intersect. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” John Gibson’s point is that in its zeal to secularize every aspect of public life, the American Civil Liberties Union has focused on the former at the expense of the latter. This effort has, every year for about three decades, taken the form of a war on Christmas. “The wagers… are a cabal of secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists and liberal, guilt-racked Christians,” according to the author.

The ACLU has, Mr. Gibson writes, been “providing the legal muscle and pretzel logic” in this war. People for the American and Way, Americans for the Separation of Church and State and others have served as cheering sections for ACLU efforts to bully various school districts and municipalities to bend to its demands, he says.

Mr. Gibson cites several examples, such as the Plano, Texas, school district that banned green and red paper plates from holiday parties; the school district in Kansas which fired its veteran Santa Claus because he told students that the we celebrate Christmas Day as the day Jesus was born; and the district in Covington, Ga., which stopped referring to the Christmas break on its printed calendar.

The author quotes an attorney of the National Schools Boards Association, “When schools observe religious holidays by closing school, the legally acceptable reason they are doing it is the kids won’t be there anyway.” Mr. Gibson says this is as true of Muslim holidays in largely Muslim Dearborn, Mich. as it is of Christmas. He notes that schools nationwide celebrate Christmas as a holiday because “authoritative polling figures [on the percentage of Christians in America] range from 72 percent to 84 percent.” He cites Pew Poll Research Council figures for 2002.

Typically, demands leading to these bans begin with a letter from the ACLU, threatening legal action if the school district does not comply. School administrators think of their tight budgets and the potentially ruinous cost of defending a lawsuit and usually cave in. The ACLU and its allies have carried on this campaign for so long, the author says, that proscriptions on Christmas have seeped into the culture and are assumed to be true. In fact, many are not based on court decisions. For example, the Supreme Court has never said a Christmas tree is unconstitutional. Nor has the high court found unconstitutional the singing of Christmas carols in school, saying “Merry Christmas” or printing the word “Christmas” on a public document such as a school calendar.

The intimidation by the ACLU so rattles school administrators, Mr. Gibson says, that in one school district, officials banned the playing of purely orchestral versions of Christmas carols. In another, when children brought small packets of gifts to give to one another, the packets were confiscated because one student brought a packet that included candy canes described as being curved to represent the “J” in “Jesus.” This may have pleased the ACLU, but it abridged the student’s right to free expression. This student-to-student communication was constitutional.

Last December, the school superintendent in Mustang, Okla., responding to an ACLU complaint, abruptly struck a Nativity scene and “Silent Night” from the annual school pageant, despite the fact both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa references were included. He called the district’s attorney who, being trained, as attorneys are, to be risk-averse, recommended he comply with the demand. Two weeks after his decision, a school bond issue was defeated. Determined to solve the problem in the future, he turned to the First Amendment Center for advice. The center’s Dr. Charles Haynes showed the superintendent a “third way,” in which the curriculum could include teaching about various religions in the schools without practicing them. Symbols, such as Christmas trees, could be included. Thus, the sensitivities of non-Christians and Christians could be satisfied.

Mr. Gibson, who has a daily show on the Fox News Channel, conducted many interviews for this book, including ACLU lawyers, school superintendents, city managers, parents and others. His advice to school districts and municipalities that face ACLU demands is to call for help in planning policy and curriculum from the First Amendment Center (a non-lawyer organization) or for legal advice from countervailing legal services such as the Rutherford Institute, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Thomas More Law Center and the Alliance Defense Fund. As the author shows, the war on Christmas and thus free expression, can be fought on more than one front.

Peter Hannaford is a Washington writer.

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