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catallaxy in technical exile

Rosemary Neill — (Culture) War Correspondent

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In today’s Australian Rosemary Neil reports on the “American war on Christmas”. Just in case any of you have been hiding in a cave over the holiday season, the war on Christmas is a traditional part of America’s culture wars. This year the Fox News Channel’s John Gibson devoted an entire book to the fray — The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Fox has been promoting the conflict particularly enthusiastically this year.

In her piece for the Australian O’Neill runs through a list of this year’s atrocity stories and denounces the enemy — political correctness and the ACLU. What she doesn’t do is balance her commentary by explaining where all this noise is coming from.

Hostilities in America’s war on Christmas began as far back as 1959 when the John Birch Society exposed anti-Christmas subversion as a communist plot. According to the Society’s Hubert Kregeloh

One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our own country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas—to denude the event of its religious meaning. And as in so many of their undertakings, the conspirators have been able to enlist the aid of many non-Communist allies and dupes.

Neill may have avoided being duped by the Reds at the ACLU, but a major source of her information seems to Fox News and conservative Christian activist groups. Let’s take a closer look at Neill’s Christmas atrocity stories.

1. Target vs the Salvation Army

Target no longer allows the Salvation Army to ring Christmas bells and collect donations outside its stores. Target is one of a slew of US chains seeking to broaden their customer base by neutering Christmas.

Attacks on Target have been led by conservative christian groups like the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America. While public attacks have focused on the ban on Salvation Army collections and Target’s refusal to say "Merry Christmas" the real reason for the attack is these groups’ anti-gay agenda.

Charities and other groups like to apprehend shoppers on their way in and out of department stores and shopping malls. It’s hard to plead poor when your hands are filled with freshly purchased consumer goods. Target’s solicitation policy aims to protect consumers from feelings of guilt induced by charity collectors and allows them to get on with their job — buying more stuff at Target. Up until recently Target made an exception for the Salvation Army. But according to Steve Levin of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

That rankled other nonprofits that wanted a piece of the same pie. The Minneapolis-based discount retailer finally decided earlier this year it could not single out one nonprofit over another.

"Each year we’ve been receiving an increasing number of requests to solicit at our stores," said Paula Thornton-Greear, a Target spokeswoman. "If we continue to allow The Salvation Army to solicit, then it opens the doors to other groups to solicit our [customers].

"Our key message is we wanted to be fair and consistent."

Target’s policy isn’t unique.

The American Family Association has been at the centre of the attack on Target. In December 2004 the AFA reported that there was a homosexual plot to drive the Salvation Army out of Target stores and called for a boycott of Target stores. The AFA has also called for boycotts of other corporations like Ford that it claims are supporting homosexuality.

Not everyone shares the AFA’s obsession with the ‘gay lifestyle’ so they also pitched their boycott as part of the ‘War on Christmas’. An AFA media release explained:

Target does not use the word “Christmas” in any of their in-store promotions or advertising. The company itself does not display the word “Christmas” anywhere. You will see it only on other company products that Target is selling, such as “Christmas ornaments.”

With that angle Fox’s Bill O’Reilly was more than happy to talk the story up (the AFA and O’Reilly don’t see eye to eye on the gay issue).

2. University bans Christmas carols

At one Florida university, a choirmaster reportedly pulled a song from his "winter concert" because it mentioned the word Christmas. American schools have renamed the Christmas vacation the winter vacation.

This story comes from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. On November 22 the League reported that Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) was banning Christmas music from their ‘winter concert’. According the League "there will be no Christmas carols sung this year: the choir director pulled a song from the concert because it mentioned the word Christmas." The League’s president, Bill Donohue later clarified the story:

“After our news release on FGCU, I received a call from Susan Evans, the school’s spokesperson. She maintains that a news story on the issue of banning a Christmas song at a Christmas concert was not entirely accurate. On December 9, there will be an ‘Appreciation’ luncheon for faculty and staff where a choir will sing some songs. When a student learned that no Christmas songs would be sung, she complained to the media. The story was then picked up by the local NBC media (WBBH-TV).

“Therefore, while the school will not allow Christmas songs to be sung, it is wrong to say that such songs are being banned at a Christmas concert.

“I found Susan Evans to be honest and convincing and regret that this story was floated for several days without emendation.”

John Gibson picked the story up on Fox arguing that the university was suppressing Christmas — "This is the time of the year for the convenient excuse to not say or sing Christmas" he said. Excuses don’t cut any ice at Fox News. It’s Christmas and you’re obliged to sing Christmas carols.

3. Wise men and holy family banned from local library

On cable television, a woman from Texas complained about the blackbanning of Mary, Jesus and Joseph from a nativity scene in her local library. The plastic livestock passed muster with local officials, but the three wise men were sent into exile with the holy family.

This story says more about the peculiarities of US constitutional law than it does about politically correct hostility to Christmas. The episode started with an action by the Alliance Defense Fund — a conservative Christian public-interest law firm. According to the ADF’s website:

Brandi Chambless, a member of the music ministry at Broadmoor Memphis Church, submitted an announcement for display on the library’s community shelves regarding the church’s upcoming Christmas show. Library officials accepted the announcement but told Chambless that she would have to remove the "inappropriate" figures of the baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the wise men from an accompanying nativity scene and limit it to farm animals alone.

Chambless and ADF Attorney Mike Johnson later appeared on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor (O’Reilly also ran a follow up story). After this media coverage the officials at Bartlett library were contacted by Bartlett’s mayor, Keith McDonald.and the full display was allowed. Memphis Public Library officials now have a written policy on what kinds of displays are not acceptable. These include: "Any item which promotes a particular religion or sectarian religious belief. Note: The library will accept materials which promote church-sponsored activities of community interest." [Correction: Mick Wright of Memphis blog Fishkite advises that the Library’s policy "has been in place for several years".]

This policy isn’t a reflection of bureaucratic hostility to Christianity. As Neill says, "Under the US constitution’s first amendment, governments are barred from endorsing any religion". Government officials need to stay on the right side of the law but, as Dahlia Lithwick explains in Slate, it’s not exactly clear what the law is saying:

…even after absorbing all the case law, you won’t be sure whether or not you have a case. In a clutch of divisive and confusing cases, the high court has held that nativity scenes are constitutional, except when they are not. Thanks to a slew of recent Supreme Court case law, determining the constitutionality of holiday scenes is an exceptionally "fact-specific" inquiry. Fact-specific is Supreme Court code for why different cases with seemingly identical facts lead to different outcomes.

If you want to figure it out for yourself, the relevant cases are Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union.

Public officials are in a no-win situation. Culture warriors from either side can sue them. When the ADF wrote to the library they threatened them with legal action:

To avoid needless federal litigation, pleas advise this office in writing that the Library will comply with the Constitution and permit Broadmoor Memphis to display the nativity scene on the library shelves in the form Ms. Chambless originally requested, that the unconstitutional policy will be rescinded immediately, and also that the Library personnel have been instructed to cease further discrimination or enforcement of the Library’s unconstitutional policy (pdf).

Threats from the ADF are not idle. According to the liberal advocacy organisation People for the American Way:

ADF has been involved with 16 “victories” before the Supreme Court, including such high profile cases as Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network. ADF has had success in anti-gay cases all over the US, from Alaska to Massachusetts.

"I don’t think it should be a big issue"

Is there a conservative plot to ban Christmas as John Gibson seems to think? Or is this all part of the religious right’s effort to manufacture useful controversies? I’m going with the second hypothesis, but you can make up your own mind. I do, however, agree with Gibson on one thing:

This issue of non Christians being confronted with Christianity wherever they go at Christmas time seems to me to be best answered by "Well… DUH!" It’s a Christian holiday and it’s a big one. Eighty-four percent of the country self identifies as Christian. Ninety-six percent of the country observes or celebrates Christmas in some form, if only slightly, so what would one expect? I think Christmas does require the forbearance of non-Christians, but I don’t think it should be a big issue.

Exactly. None of this deserves to be a big issue.

Update: Mick Wright of Memphis blog Fishkite has a great series of posts on the ‘blackbanning of Mary, Jesus and Joseph from a nativity scene’ story. Mick is a local and has been in touch with many of the people involved. His posts include photos of the nativity scene and the library. Mick’s posts are here: one, two, three, and four and five.

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Written by Admin

December 31, 2005 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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