ROANOKE, Va. The Rev. Jerry Falwell has marshaled his forces to keep "Merry Christmas" in the vernacular and "Silent Night" on the school playlist.
Falwell, founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg and the defunct Moral Majority, has e-mailed 500,000 followers to urge them to support the "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" conducted by a conservative legal organization affiliated with his ministry.
"I asked about 100,000 pastors nationwide to join me in dealing with the 'grinches' who are trying to steal Christmas," Falwell said in a Nov. 28 telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Falwell contends the grinches are organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, groups he says are spreading misinformation.
The "Friend or Foe" campaign by the Liberty Counsel is intended to let public officials know that Christmas is legal. The organization is backing that up with the free services of 700 lawyers ready to file suit to protect the holiday's celebration.
"Many officials erroneously believe it's unconstitutional to celebrate Christmas," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel.
The biggest skirmish so far this year has come in Boston, where a reference to the "holiday" tree on a city Web site drew fire from Christian groups. Officials removed the reference and Mayor Thomas Menino later said the tree on Boston Common was never intended to be anything other than a Christmas tree.
"The Boston Christmas tree issue was a minor thing, but had it been allowed to stand, it would have sent a signal across the nation that people of faith should not be allowed public expression," Falwell said.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees the issue differently. It's perfectly legal for a community to have a holiday tree, he said, adding that Falwell was trying to "force people to do things his way."
Lynn admits that bureaucrats occasionally have crossed the line in restricting religious expressions of Christmas, but says there really is no "foe" in this campaign.
"There hasn't been any war against Christmas ever," he said.
Falwell said a memo explaining what the law allows was sent to several thousand school districts across the country and to retailers.
The Alliance Defense Fund, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is conducting a similar effort and has enlisted the services of 800 lawyers.
This is the third year of Liberty Counsel's campaign, but the first time Falwell has been involved.
"We were beginning to hear from constituents across the country that their children were being advised there would be no Christmas programs this year," Falwell said. "We decided to put a stop to that."