Tuesday, December 21, 2004

'Christmas is taboo in America, but now people are fighting back'

If you think celebrations in Britain are becoming too politically correct then don't go to the US. Philip Sherwell reports

For her son's school "holiday party" last week, Julie West baked a birthday cake for the baby Jesus - a gesture of defiance both against his teachers and the growing campaign in America to remove any trace of Christmas from public life.

Six-year-old Aaron had brought home a note from his school, in Washington state, that asked parents to provide food that their family traditionally enjoyed during the holiday season.

"He asked for the cake I make at Christmas with the words 'Happy Birthday Jesus'," said Ms West. "I called the school to let them know, but a few days later the teacher phoned back to say that I couldn't bring the cake as the party was not a religious event."

Ms West, who attends a non-denominational church in Edmonds, near Seattle, was amazed. "It wasn't an attempt to impose my beliefs on anyone. It was just a cake," she said. "I think all traditions and religions should be celebrated at this time of year."

After researching the issue on the internet she contacted the Rutherford Institute, a mainstream pressure group that defends religious freedom. It assured her that even though the American constitution bans the promotion of religion by the government, simply bringing a cake iced with "Happy Birthday Jesus" into the school broke no laws. "So I took the cake in for the party on Tuesday and none of the other parents or children were offended," she said. "The only comment was how delicious it was.

"I didn't set out to make a point, but now I hope I have helped a few other people understand their rights."

Not everyone is as robust. Across the United States, celebrations for what many Americans now refer to as the "C word" have been all but restricted to churches and private homes.

In Wichita, Kansas, a local newspaper ran an apology after referring to a "Christmas tree", rather than a "community tree" at the city's Winterfest celebration. In Denver, a Christian church float was barred from the city's parade while Chinese lion dancers and German folk dancers were welcomed. In parts of Florida, fir trees have been banned this year from government-owned property.

A mayor in Massachusetts issued a formal apology to anyone offended by a press release that mistakenly described the town of Somerville's holiday party as a "Christmas party". Schools in Florida and New Jersey have banned all carols and elsewhere in Washington state a school principal banned a production of A Christmas Carol mainly because Tiny Tim prays: "God bless us, every one."

In one New Jersey school district, where the singing of Christmas carols has long been abandoned, officials have this year forbidden children's orchestras to play songs such as Silent Night because that might remind people of their Christian content.

Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland have, however, been deemed acceptable as they are devoid of any religious references.

"The majority of people in the towns think that this policy is unnecessary," said William Calabrese, the town president (mayor) of South Orange. "This feels like a slap in the face to diversity, not a symbol of it. They're sterilising the school systems, taking away freedom of choice. It's a type of totalitarianism."

The fightback, however, has begun. Showdowns are taking place across the country as individuals, and conservative and religious groups, come out against the zealous interpretation of the separation of Church and state.

In Chicago, a Nativity scene has been given police protection after a life-sized model of the infant Christ was briefly stolen before being recovered earlier this month.

"This has been getting worse for years and people have finally had enough," said John Whitehead, the founder of the Rutherford Institute, which has issued its own "Twelve Rules of Christmas" setting out people's religious rights.

"Political correctness is all-pervasive here. Christmas has become a taboo in America but now people are fighting back."

In the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang, voters angered by a school board's decision to remove a Nativity scene from a school play demonstrated their fury at the ballot box last week. They rejected the board's plans to raise $11 million (£5.7 million) by issuing bonds.

Many parents were particularly angry that the play still featured Santa Claus and a Christmas tree in addition to symbols of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah and of Kwanzaa, an African-American celebration established in 1966 as a counter to Christmas. These were deemed "cultural" rather than religious.

Also last week, a court challenge began in New York to overturn a policy that allows the Jewish menorah and Islamic crescent and star to be displayed in schools, but forbids Nativity scenes.

The Catholic League and Thomas More Law Centre are appealing against a lower court ruling that found that the Jewish and Muslim symbols have a secular dimension while the Nativity is "purely religious".

Organisations such as the Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State believe that the campaign to put Christ back into Christmas is being pushed by conservative Christian groups buoyed by the victory of President George W Bush and the religious Right in last month's elections. "They are emboldened," said Robert Boston, an AU spokesman.

The Chicago Nativity has been at the centre of controversy since the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the American Atheists launched a legal challenge against its location on public property.

Their case was thrown out because the scene was erected by a private group. This year, at least, other expressions of religious freedom are also being allowed in the city.

Pressure groups such as the Rutherford Institute and the Alliance Defence Fund, which hires lawyers to fight perceived anti-Christian bias, say that many teachers and public officials are confused about the law and wrongly believe that any religious displays or symbols are forbidden on government property.

Others have been cowed by a stream of complaints and are just seeking "the easy life", according to Mr Whitehead. Retailers are particularly sensitive to complaints. Several stores, including Macy's, have reportedly banned their staff from referring to Christmas in case they deter non-Christian customers, prompting a group of angry Californians to boycott its outlets.

While President Bush's holiday greetings card, posted to a record two million recipients this year, carries a line from Psalm 95 – "Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song" – there is no mention of Christmas on the White House website. Even Fox News, the conservative television network, cannot bring itself to wish a merry Christmas to its viewers. Instead, "Happy Holidays" is flashed up to the tune – but not the words – of Ding Dong Merrily on High.

The Rutherford Institute despairs. "This is not a Left-Right, Republican-Democrat issue," said Mr Whitehead. "It's about everyone's right to celebrate their religious beliefs as they want. We should be including all religions, not excluding one."

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