Sunday, December 5, 2004

DENVER — Hundreds of Christians sang yuletide carols at a holiday parade Friday night in defiance of rules forbidding them from entering floats with a Christmas or religious theme.

As many as 1,000 carolers walked along the parade route in downtown Denver for an hour before the event, singing banned tunes such as “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and “The First Noel.” Some waved crosses and other Christian symbols to protest the parade committee’s ruling.

The caroling ended shortly before the start of the 30th annual Parade of Lights, sponsored by local businesses. The parade was expected to draw about 375,000 spectators.

“It was very peaceful,” said Joanna Beasley, whose husband, Gary, is a pastor at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada. “It went very well.”

Faith Bible Chapel had applied to enter a float in the parade that would have included carolers and a “Merry Christmas” sign. Parade officials rejected the float, citing rules that ban religious or political displays.

The parade has not allowed religious-themed entries for at least 10 years and doesn’t accept public funding, organizers said.

The ruling on the float touched off a national outcry last week after the Rev. George Morrison, pastor of the church, disclosed the parade committee’s ruling to the Rocky Mountain News. Hundreds of callers complained about the ruling to the City Council, parade organizers and the local NBC-TV affiliate, KUSA-TV, which also sponsors the parade.

Many Christians said they were shocked that a parade clearly timed to coincide with Christmas had banned all references to the holiday. If the popular event has nothing to do with Christmas, officials should hold it in January or February instead, critics said.

“They want to take advantage of the timing by having the parade at the same time as Christmas, but they’re saying you can’t have any Christians in it,” said Mark Anderson, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Family Council. “Obviously, it has to do with Christmas or people wouldn’t show up.”

Fanning the outrage was the committee’s approval of a float sponsored by Two Spirits, an American Indian group that considers homosexuality to be holy. Critics complained that the committee had broken its own rules by accepting the religious-themed float.

Faith Bible Chapel, a 4,000-member megachurch, responded by organizing the caroling event, and the church soon was flooded by calls of support from other Christian denominations interested in participating.

The reaction to the ruling could have an effect on the committee’s policy, said Jim Basey, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which sponsors the parade. He said organizers would re-evaluate the float rules before the event next year.

Mr. Basey said the partnership “had no objections” to the church’s decision to walk along the parade route singing carols and passing out hot chocolate. He added that parade-watchers were free to sing carols or say “Merry Christmas.”

Former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton, who is married to Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, offered last week to represent Faith Bible Chapel in a free-speech lawsuit against the parade committee, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

The church had no comment on the offer.

“I don’t know if Faith will sue over it, but if they did, they’d win easily,” Mr. Anderson said.

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