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Baptist Pastor Jerry Falwell Sues and Boycotts Groups Who Want To Do Away With "Merry Christmas"

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12/22/2005 01:25 AM
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Baptist Pastor Jerry Falwell Sues and Boycotts Groups Who Want To Do Away With "Merry Christmas"
Evangelical Christian pastor Jerry Falwell has a message for Americans when it comes to celebrating Christmas this year: You're either with us, or you're against us.

Falwell has put the power of his 24,000-member congregation behind the "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," an effort led by the conservative legal organization Liberty Counsel. The group promises to file suit against anyone who spreads what it sees as misinformation about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces.

The 8,000 members of the Christian Educators Association International will be the campaign's "eyes and ears" in the nation's public schools. They'll be reporting to 750 Liberty Counsel lawyers who are ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher is muzzled from leading the third-graders in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

An additional 800 attorneys from another conservative legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, are standing by as part of a similar effort, the Christmas Project. Its slogan: "Merry Christmas. It's OK to say it."

Fanning the Yule log of discontent against what the Liberty Counsel calls "grinches" like the American Civil Liberties Union are evangelical-led organizations including the 150,000-member American Family Association. It has called for a boycott of Target stores next weekend. The chain's crime, according to the group, is a ban on the use of "Merry Christmas" in stores, an accusation the chain denies.

On his show last week, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly offered a list of other retailers that he says refuse to use "Merry Christmas" in their store advertising.

In signing on to "Friend or Foe" this month, Falwell urged the 500,000 recipients of his weekly "Falwell Confidential" e-mail to "draw a line in the sand and resist bullying tactics of the ACLU and others who intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas."

Standing on the other side of that sand line are religious, liberal and secular organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, whose national director, Abe Foxman, recently bemoaned the religious right's efforts to "Christianize" America.

"This amped-up effort shows how these groups want to push into the classrooms more," said Tami Holzman, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League's San Francisco office.

"There is no war against Christmas," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There is no jihad against Christians. There is nothing going on around Christmas except these groups' incessant fundraising."

How the season of ho-ho-ho evolved into "Friend or Foe" shows how the nation's culture wars have pushed into the season of giving. Each side wants its beliefs accurately represented around the nation's winter hearth -- its public schools and government spaces.

And if not, it will sue.

"It's a sad day in America when you have to retain an attorney to say 'Merry Christmas,' " said Mike Johnson, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney in Louisiana who will push the Christmas cause.

Organizers of the Christmas campaigns say many Christians feel aggrieved by the secularization of the season. They say teachers feel too intimidated to allow students to sing "Silent Night" in school, and they believe cities have every right to place a nativity scene in a public park.

Both activities are constitutionally protected, the Christian groups say, provided that the kids also sing secular songs and the cities put up nonreligious holiday displays as well.

Friends, according to "Friend or Foe" campaign sponsor Liberty Counsel, "do not discriminate against Christmas." Foes are going to get a letter from one of the pro bono lawyers reminding them that "Christmas is constitutional," not to mention a federal holiday.

"We'll try to educate," said Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel. "But if we can't, we'll litigate."

Or boycott. The American Family Association called Thursday for a Thanksgiving weekend shunning of Target stores, saying the chain was refusing to allow the phrase "Merry Christmas" on in-store promotions and advertising.

"I don't know where they're coming from," Target spokeswoman Carolyn Brookter replied. "We have no such policy on Christmas. You can see it in our stores."

At one local Target, in Colma, most of the in-store advertising offers a generic "Gatherround." One of the few advertising mentions of the C-word is above a Christmas card rack that says, "Celebrate Christmas."

That's not good enough for American Family Association President Tim Wildmon, who wants to see "Merry Christmas" signs displayed prominently "if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season."

And he isn't worried if they offend people who aren't Christian.

"They can walk right by the sign," Wildmon said. "It's a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation."

Where's Wildmon shopping next weekend? "Wal-Mart," he said.

That chain was briefly the target of a boycott called by the Catholic Rights League after an employee described Christmas in an unflattering way in a company e-mail. The employee has since left and the boycott is off, though the Catholic Rights League still criticizes Wal-Mart for tellings its employees to say, "Happy holidays."

Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said the "Happy holidays" greeting is "more inclusive. With 130 million customers walking through the door and 1.3 million employees, it's safe to say there are a lot of different faiths out there."

The ACLU and its supporters believe they're being drawn into a make-believe war. They say they've fielded fewer holiday-season conflicts in recent years and that everybody seems to know the rules, except those trying to make a political point.

"People are free to worship in their homes and their houses of worship and if they rent out a hall," said the ACLU's Jeremy Gunn, national director of the group's Freedom of Religion and Belief program. "You have to ask, why do they want to worship in the public schools?

"That they're doing this in the name of religion is very, very sad," Gunn said. "It would be one thing if they're talking about consumerism of the season or something, but they're not."

Other groups are actively countering the Christmas campaigns.

The Anti-Defamation League said it would send letters to school administrators nationwide on how to negotiate the "December dilemma," emphasizing that "schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not)."

The issue is a dilemma for the Anti-Defamation League, too. It commissioned a poll last month of 800 adults, 57 percent of whom said Christianity was under attack. Among evangelicals, the figure was 76 percent.

"There's a lot of fear out there," said Finn Laursen, a retired school administrator who is now executive director of the Christian Educators Association International.

Standing in the middle of the fray are school administrators like Rob Kessler, superintendent of the 24,000-student San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

Kessler said it's OK, for example, for a teacher to bring a menorah into class. "But what's not OK is if a teacher would begin lighting candles and saying prayers," he said. "Then it becomes a religious ceremony. But, honestly, we haven't seen many instances of this in the last few years."

The war has even spread to Bob Norris, head of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York. He lent his organization's name to the Alliance Defense Fund's campaign because, he said, "The people who are fighting to save this country are in favor of Christmas."

Sam Minturn, who heads the California Christmas Tree Association, said his group hadn't taken a position on the issue. In fact, he doesn't mind the term "holiday tree" -- a phrase that angers some "Friend or Foe" campaigners.

"I don't care what people call them, as long as they buy them," said Minturn, who lives in Merced County. "Go ahead and call them a weed."