Friday, December 24, 2004

Groups on Right Say Christmas Is Under Attack

Groups on Right Say Christmas Is Under Attack
Others Call Outcry A Ploy for Funds

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A04

Many of the conservative Christian groups that led the fight this year to ban same-sex marriage are sounding an alarm about efforts to block Christmas celebrations.

Representatives of the groups -- including the Alliance Defense Fund, the Thomas More Law Center and Liberty Counsel -- say the two issues, and other pending fights over public display of the Ten Commandments and teaching of evolution, are linked by a belief among religious conservatives that traditional values are under siege in the United States.

"The sentiment is the same for the same-sex marriage battle or for Christmas: It's the pervasive idea among religious people that traditional values are under attack from all different angles," said Erik Stanley, chief counsel for the Liberty Counsel.

Those on the other side of these battles say the Christian groups are wildly exaggerating the threats from a phantom enemy for the purpose of mobilizing evangelicals to contribute funds (some groups are explicitly using the Christmas issue to raise money) or to become politically active. On the Christmas fight, the American Civil Liberties Union, the group most often cited as the enemy of traditionalists, says it has not filed a single case blocking Christmas displays this year and cites half a dozen instances over the past year in which it has fought on the side of more religious expression.

"This is the winter equivalent of those summer stories about shark attacks being on the increase," says Barry Lynn, who heads the liberal group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The conservative groups, he said, "think they can make Christians feel like a besieged majority. It creates a Christian solidarity against all those who would oppress them: secularists in this season, gay and lesbians next month, abortion the next month."

Whether the threat is real or a straw man, conservatives have been aggressive this season in citing the danger to Christmas. This week, Jerry Falwell, a conservative leader, told supporters that "so-called civil libertarians attempt to purge all vestiges of faith from the American public square." Also this week, Paul M. Weyrich, another conservative leader, proclaimed that "the campaign to eliminate Christmas from our society is well underway." Several conservative commentators have echoed the charge on television and radio and in newspapers.

The Rutherford Institute, declaring "Christmas Under Siege," cites a "growing tendency among public schools and government officials to ban references to Christmas or Christianity." The Alliance Defense Fund, which has been battling gay unions, sent letters to more than 6,700 schools as part of its "Christmas Project." It has 700 "allied attorneys" looking for cases where local authorities have sought to secularize the holiday, and it has found three dozen instances of bans on candy canes, prohibitions on Christmas colors, and cancellation of holiday celebrations that had Christian components.

Even President Bush, who joined with religious conservatives in efforts to ban same-sex marriage, has become a target of those fearing the secularization of Christmas. The Web site WorldNetDaily complained this week of an absence of Jesus and other Christian references on the White House Web site or in the White House Christmas decorations or the Bush Christmas card. "What's virtually missing from the White House commemoration of Christmas this year?" the Web site asked. "Jesus."

Some of those leading the fight for religious Christmas celebrations acknowledged there is no hard evidence of an increase in efforts to secularize the holiday. Richard Thompson, who leads the Thomas More Law Center, said there is anecdotal evidence of more efforts to ban Christian displays but "I don't have a statistical base."

What has indisputably increased is an effort by Christian groups to push back when such incidents are found. "There are cases like that every year, but I think it's becoming more and more evident to Christians," he said. "More and more Christians are ready to resort to litigation."

Linking the Christmas dispute to the battle over gay marriage, Thompson said: "They're different issues, but I think you could make a general rule that there is a resurgence of Christian activism in the public arena. It's a reaction to what the left wing has been doing for the last several years."

In the case of gay marriage, Christian groups were reacting to efforts to legalize same-sex unions in California and the Northeast. That fueled anger that helped gay-marriage bans pass in 11 states.

In the case of secularizing Christmas, it is more difficult to demonstrate a widespread threat. "It's very convenient for Christians to say the culture has changed and they've lost power, but Christians have never been stronger politically," said Marci A. Hamilton, who teaches at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and has written a book, "God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law."

She said the threat to Christmas "is not secularization, it's pluralization. The law doesn't say Christian symbols have to be taken out of schools, only that it can't only be Christian, it has to be pluralistic."

ACLU President Nadine Strossen, similarly, said the conservative complaints are "like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling." She adds that while there are "occasional violations in either direction" on church-state separation, "if anything, since 1985, the Supreme Court has become more supportive of government-sponsored religious exercises."

The conservative groups agree there have been no recent legal cases limiting religious expression. Liberty Counsel's Stanley said threats to Christmas have not jumped this year. "I think the response to those threats are increasing," he said.

At the Alliance Defense Fund, staff attorney Joshua Carden said the defense of Christmas has become a large campaign "just in the last couple of years where people see more outrageous incidents when Christmas is being removed from the public square."

Part of the emergence of the outrageous incidents, he said, comes from his group's efforts to highlight them. But, Carden added, Christmas "is under attack, and ADF wants to defend it."

Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.