Foiling those evil Grinches
How goes the annual battle to delete Christmas from schools and the public square? News is mixed, but on the whole, things are not going well for the Grinches. In New Jersey, for example, the Hanover Township school district said it was considering a ban on Christmas carols and other religious songs at school concerts. Parents protested and threatened to sue, so the school board beat a hasty retreat. "If a school wants religious music, they can have it, the way they could before," said the school board president.
The key phrase here is "threatened to sue." In the old days, when an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer would show up to hammer some tiny school board into submission, the legal costs of resisting were so high that the boards usually caved in. Now the anti-Grinches have legal muscle of their own. The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which supported the Hanover parents, claims to have 700 lawyers ready to fight anti-Christmas assaults around the country. The ADF (alliancedefensefund.org) played a lead role in blocking an attempt by the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League to force a charter school in Elbert County, Colo., to ban religious songs from its holiday concert. The Anti-Defamation League said the school's program was harming the sense of well-being of Jewish students. But how harmful can it be to sing six Christmas carols, two Hanukkah songs, and a lot of ditties about Rudolph and Frosty?
In Plano, Texas, a school district refused to allow a third grader at a class party to hand out candy canes with a religious message attached. The Liberty Legal Institute (libertylegal.org) and the ADF jumped in last week and demanded that the district back down, arguing that "public schools are not zones of religious censorship."
The Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich. (www .thomasmore.org), supported a parent's legal challenge to the New York City public schools' policy that allows the Islamic star and crescent and the Jewish menorah (which the Anti-Defamation League concedes is a religious symbol) but not Christian religious symbols such as a Nativity display. The schools' chancellor offered a tortured argument in court: The menorah has a "secular dimension" large enough to qualify as nonreligious. The judge, who was caustic about the school policy during arguments, is expected to rule any day.
A similar suit against the town of Palm Beach in Florida, also supported by the Thomas More Law Center, argues that the town cannot ban Nativity scenes on a prominent site where the menorah is displayed. Again, the menorah isn't simply secular. More important, the Supreme Court allows Nativity scenes on public property if they do not dominate and are part of a broader cultural display.
Offensive. At Central Michigan University, the affirmative action office warned Christians that Christmas "may be offensive to others within a place of employment." No such warning was issued about the potential dangers of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. The Catholic League (catholicleague.org) made a fuss about it and alerted Fox News Channel, which has been aggressively covering this season's anti-Christmas campaign. Central Michigan dropped the warning.
A new twist in the Christmas wars is the appearance of a Web site that chides well-known stores for abandoning the word Christmas in favor of holiday. The site, www.GrinchList.com, is run by a Virginia couple, Kirk and Amy McElwain. Among the Christmas-averse stores they list are Macy's, Bloomingdale's, the Discovery Store, KB Toys, and Home Depot. Companies commended for not censoring the word Christmas include DisneyStore.com, J.C. Penney, Rite Aid, Sears, Toys "R" Us, and Wal-Mart. The site says it's odd that some big stores apparently think the word Christmas is divisive or toxic when a large majority of Americans celebrate it--96 percent, according to a recent Opinion Dynamics poll.
The McElwains wonder how Congress's "Capitol Christmas Tree" morphed into a generic "Capitol Holiday Tree." Good question. The language change appeared in the 1990s, but the far-flung investigative staff of this column has not been able to locate any announcement, news story, or authorization for the change. The architect of the Capitol's office is responsible for the tree, but a spokeswoman there said she couldn't find anything in writing about the change, who did it, or when it occurred. If anyone knows about this shifty shift, this column's staff of telephone operators is standing by, eager to hear from you. In the meantime, Merry Holiday, everyone.
This story appears in the December 29, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.