Christmas correctness

Battle over religious symbols, greetings heats up across nation

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Emboldened by their Election Day successes, some Christian conservatives around the country are trying to put more Christ into Christmas this season.

In Terrebonne Parish, La., an organization is petitioning to add ''Merry Christmas'' to the red-lighted ''Seasons Greetings'' sign on the main government building and is selling yard signs that read, ''We believe in God. Merry Christmas.'' And a Raleigh, N.C., church recently paid $7,600 for a full-page newspaper ad urging Christians to spend their money only with merchants who include the greeting ''Merry Christmas'' in ads and displays.

''There is a revival taking place in our nation that is causing Christian and right-minded people to say, 'Wait a minute. We've gone too far,''' says the Rev. Patrick Wooden Sr., pastor of the Raleigh church. ''We're not going to allow the country to continue this downward spiral to the left.''

In California, a group called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas is boycotting Macy's and its corporate parent, Federated Department Stores, accusing them of replacing ''Merry Christmas'' signs with ones wishing shoppers ''Seasons Greetings'' or ''Happy Holidays.'' The organization cites ''the recent presidential election showing political correctness is offending millions of Americans.''

(Federated, for its part, says that is has no ban on such greetings and that its store divisions can advertise as they see fit and store clerks are free to wish any customer ''Merry Christmas.'' Macy's says its ads commonly use the phrase.)

The push from the religious right troubles Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

''This mixing of secular and religious symbols ought to be seen as a bad thing, not a good thing, for Christian believers,'' he says. ''Unfortunately, some of the Christian pressure groups seem to have it backwards.'' He adds: ''I think it's fair to say it's a mistaken notion that they have a mandate to put more nativity scenes up because George Bush was elected.''

The battle over the manger on the city hall lawn is nothing new. People expect the annual tussle over the separation of church and state.

But the ''keep the Christ in Christmas'' contingent is particularly agitated this year over what its members see as a troubling trend on Main Street: Target stores banning Salvation Army bell ringers; UPS drivers complaining to a free-speech group that they have been told not to wish people a ''Merry Christmas'' (an accusation UPS denies as ''silly on its face and just not true''); and major corporations barring religious music from cubicles and renaming the office Christmas bash the ''end of the year'' party.

''I think it is part of a growing movement of people with more traditional values, which make up the majority of people in this country, saying enough is enough,'' says Greg Scott, a spokesman for the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund. ''Ninety-six percent of us here in America celebrate Christmas.''

Amid stories of schools banning the singing of carols on buses, Scott's group has distributed to more than 5,000 schools a seven-point legal primer citing 40 years of case law that says it is OK to mention Christmas in public places. And the group has about 800 lawyers waiting in the wings in case that notion needs to be reinforced.

To that same end, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which says it received the UPS driver complaints, has reissued its ''12 Rules of Christmas'' guide to celebrating the birth of Jesus.

''I think the businesses and the schools have just gone too far; this is the final straw,'' says Institute president John W. Whitehead. ''It's supposed to be a time of, what, peace and freedom and fun. And they've kind of made it into a secular ... kind of gray day.''

Conservative radio and TV talk show hosts have chortled over some recent incidents of what they consider political correctness run amok.

In Kansas, The Wichita Eagle ran a correction for a notice that mistakenly referred to the Community Tree at the Winterfest celebration as a ''Christmas Tree.'' And the mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologized after a news release mistakenly referred to the Dec. 21 City Holiday Party as a ''Christmas Party.''

But to many, the threats and demands that stores put up ''Merry Christmas'' signs are no laughing matter.

''Why not simply require stores owned by Jews to put a gold star in their ads and on their storefronts?'' the Rev. Jim Melnyk, associate rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, wrote in a letter to the editor.

Editor's note: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. AP writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report.



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