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Christmas controversies crop up coast-to-coast

By The Associated Press

Debates over Christmas this year range from traditional December controversies — what to call Yule trees in the public square — to the novel — school lunch menus recalled because they were printed with the greeting "Merry Christmas."

Washington, D.C.
Lighting up the chilly night with a resolute flick of a switch, House Speaker Dennis Hastert last night illuminated this year's Capitol Christmas — not "holiday" — Tree, reinstating its religious title for the first time in years.

Known as the Capitol Holiday Tree since the 1990s, the Engelmann spruce towering over the Capitol's West Lawn became a symbol of the Republican-led Congress' resolve on the matter of holiday wishes. The issue touched the White House when some Christian conservatives expressed anger over the cards they received from President Bush and his wife, Laura, wishing them a pleasant "holiday season."

Hastert, who made clear in a letter last month that he intended to light a Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn, flicked a switch that illuminated the 65-foot spruce dressed up with 10,000 lights and 3,000 ornaments. It will shine nightfall to 11 p.m. each day through Jan. 1.

The brightly colored ornaments were crafted by the people of the spruce's home state, New Mexico, and strands of energy-conserving LED lights decorate the tree.

"Each of these (ornaments) showcases an attribute of New Mexico, including its rich cultural heritage, its history, natural resources and wildlife," said Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman.

Hastert, R-Ill., wrote to Hantman last month urging a return to the tradition of calling the spruce the Capitol Christmas Tree, instead of the Capitol Holiday Tree. The tree has been a Capitol tradition since 1964.

"I fully understand your desire to make all holiday displays as inclusive as possible," Hastert wrote. "There are many ways to accomplish this."

Hantman confirmed yesterday that this year's spruce is indeed a Christmas tree.

As for the White House holiday cards, a spokeswoman for Laura Bush said the first couple wanted to be inclusive and respectful of other traditions.

ATLANTA — Two Georgia lawmakers have filed bills that would prohibit any government agency from stopping people who work for them from saying "Merry Christmas" instead of the generic "Happy Holidays."

The same would go for schools, where students would also be allowed to call a holiday by its name — like Christmas or Hanukkah.

State Sen. Ronnie Chance said he pre-filed the bill on Dec. 7 in part because he heard of a school principal in northeastern Georgia who told teachers they couldn't call their staff party a Christmas party. State Rep. Clay Cox filed the same measure in the House on the same day.

"Our First Amendment right to free speech cannot be destroyed by political correctness run amok," Chance said. "I don't believe government was created to be the speech police."

Georgia's official take on Christmas made national news last week when Gov. Sonny Perdue's office sent out a press release that announced plans for a "holiday tree" lighting ceremony at the governor's mansion.

Exactly 30 minutes later, another press release said that the tree was in fact a Christmas tree.

MILWAUKEE — A nonprofit conservative group is threatening to take two public school districts to court over holiday programs it claims discriminate against Christianity.

And in Madison, a group of lawmakers wants the 35-foot-tall balsam fir in the Capitol rotunda to be called the state Christmas tree, rather than using the name of "holiday tree" that was adopted in 1985. There's no indication any change will be made.

The Christmas advocates contend the separation of church and state is being taken too far, both at the Capitol and in the two schools whose programs are being targeted by the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel.

"What we are seeing with these two schools is that this holiday is merely a ghost of Christmas past," said Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a group endorsed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

While school administrators defend their programs as fair to Christianity and other faiths, the counsel says Ridgeway Elementary School in the Dodgeville School District and Parkway Elementary School in the Glendale-River Hills School District are discriminating against songs promoting Christianity and the celebration of Christmas.

Parents at the two schools alerted the group about their concerns with the holiday programs, including Ridgeway's decision to use the tune of "Silent Night" for a song called "Cold in the Night."

"They're discriminating based upon a religious viewpoint," Staver said. "It sends a tremendous disconnect to a young person when you're familiar with the song 'Silent Night' and tune and all of sudden you learn the same tune with totally secular words."

Diane Messer, administrator of the Dodgeville School District, said the holiday show is titled "The Little Tree's Christmas Gift" and was copyrighted in 1988. It's about a family that goes to buy a Christmas tree and uses a collection of familiar Christmas carol melodies to tell the story.

"Somebody totally misunderstood and had the belief that one of our teachers took it upon herself to rewrite the words to 'Silent Night,'" she said. "This program is well within our district's policy which allows us the use of both religious and secular content in our curriculum and in our productions and performances."

Messer said the program has been performed "several times" over the last 18 years and the school district has no immediate plans to address the Liberty Counsel's concerns.

"It's a misunderstanding and people have drawn all sorts of absurd conclusions from it," she said.

Staver said the district could face a lawsuit calling for an injunction against the program before it is presented in two weeks.

"They're responsible people," Staver said. "If you use the argument from Dodgeville that somebody else copyrighted this and we're just using this, that would absolve them of responsibility. It's the responsibility of the school to act responsible. ... We are, after all, celebrating a national holiday — Christmas."

In the Glendale-River Hills School District, the Liberty Counsel is concerned about the elementary school's elimination of Christian songs, while keeping songs about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

But district administrator Frances Smith said school officials didn't eliminate any songs, only chose songs out of a songbook, and the ones selected included some traditional Christmas music.

"We did not change any words, there was that accusation leveled at us," Smith said. "Our students were singing the songs that were in the book."

A glance of the song listing for the program, called Holiday Sing, includes the carol "Angels We Have Heard on High" and the song "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

"We have a very diverse community, we have to balance so that we do not offend any component of our community, our students," Smith said. "We produce a balanced program to honor and recognize as many of the cultures as we can."

Staver said his group opposes discriminating against Christian songs in the programs.

"They're celebrating other holidays but eliminating the core of the holiday we're celebrating," he said. "It is quite permissible to sing all of the great Christian songs of Christmas as well as singing 'Frosty the Snowman' and Hanukkah songs.

"But when they pick and choose only the secular or non-Christmas songs, it shows a bias and discrimination."

Washington state
SEATTLE — Holiday religious issues arose this month in two suburban school districts, one for lunch menus with the words "Merry Christmas" and the other for a "giving tree."

In Federal Way, between Seattle and Tacoma, December lunch menus for all 23 elementary schools were recalled and reprinted with the words "Happy Holidays" at a cost of $494 after a new nutrition-services employee mistakenly prepared them with the greeting "Merry Christmas," spokeswoman Diane Turner said.

Using "Merry Christmas" on the menus violated school system policies because "it has a religious connotation for some people," Turner said. The 11,500 calendar-style menus were never distributed and were recycled.

In Medina, east of Lake Washington, a Christmas-style tree bearing mittens labeled with gift ideas was up for about a week at Medina Elementary School before it was removed, office manager Chris Metzger said.

The idea was for pupils to take a mitten, get the listed gift, wrap it and bring it to school to be given to someone at Lake Hills Elementary School in a less well-off section of neighboring Bellevue.

Some parents had put up the spiral, lighted tree with a star at the top, but it was removed on Dec. 5 after another parent complained that it had religious connotations, Metzger said. The mittens were transferred to a counter in the office so the gift program could continue.

"We covered the star and called it a giving tree. We hoped it would suffice, but it didn't," Metzger said. "Now we just have a giving counter."

Also in Washington state this week, a state legislator is unhappy that some seasonal greenery in Olympia has been designated the "Capitol Holiday Kids' Tree."

Gov. Christine Gregoire should declare the 30-foot noble fir in the Legislative Building a Christmas tree and post "Merry Christmas" signs nearby, state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, said on Dec. 7 on talk radio, urging listeners to call the governor's office.

The current display shows a lack of respect for Christian tradition, Ahern said.

"We're a Judeo-Christian nation. Of course we should have 'Merry Christmas' on signs there," he said. "Our Constitution guarantees us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

The tree is named by the Association of Washington Business, which organizes an annual tree-lighting and gift drive for needy youngsters.

"It's the state's unofficial Christmas tree," association president Donald C. Brunell said. "It was not set up to be a poster child for talk radio."

The current designation dates from about 1990, when some lawmakers objected to calling it a Christmas tree, "so we said OK, to be inclusive for everybody, we'll call it the Capitol Holiday Kids' Tree," Brunell said. "Until this year, the tree's name seemed to have hit a happy equilibrium."

Gregoire is not about to rename the tree, "but the governor wanted me to point out that she has a Christmas tree in her office and in her home," spokeswoman Althea Cawley-Murphree said.


Mich. Capitol conifer re-christened 'Christmas tree'

'If you're going to have a tree, you might as well call it what it is,' Michigan Jewish Conference director says after lawmakers vote to change name. 11.30.06

Calif. city worker tells Christmas carolers to clam up
Staff member was concerned Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen, who is Jewish, might be offended during visit to city ice skating rink. 12.15.06

Merry generic holidays?

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