Clashing Over Christmas

Holiday Humbuggery From The Religious Right

The Religious Right couldn’t even wait for Halloween to be over before it started carping about the alleged nationwide campaign to drive Christmas out of public life.

Like eager department store employees who start erecting plastic trees and tinsel in mid October, Religious Right attorneys were chomping at the bit to launch this year’s crusade – probably because, like those store clerks, they had an eye on the bottom line.

The Jerry Falwell-affiliated Liberty Counsel was the first out of the box, convening a press conference Oct. 17 to huff and puff and threaten every public school in America unless “Silent Night” is included in the Winter Concert, which, incidentally, they insist be renamed the “Christmas Concert.”

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly was so eager to pile on that he blew an innocuous school calendar change in Hillsborough County, Fla., completely out of proportion.

Education officials there were approached by a Muslim group that requested the schools close at the end of Ramadan. Schools were already closing for Christmas break, Good Friday and some Jewish holidays. Rather than add more days off, the board voted to retain the end-of-the-year break, which is a logical way to divide school semesters, but cancel the other religious holidays. In exchange, it adopted a policy giving every student, teacher and staff member in the system an ironclad right to take days off for religious leave, no questions asked. Neighboring school districts and local governments had adopted the same change with no problems.

It’s hard to portray a policy that guarantees time off for religious holidays as anti-religious, but O’Reilly spun furiously and managed to make a routine calendar change look like the greatest persecution of Christianity since the days of the Emperor Nero.

O’Reilly had help locally. An opportunistic politician, Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, called the school board’s decision a vote to “abandon our heritage” and blamed the whole thing on “the far left.”

The end result was predictable: The board backed down and reinstated the old calendar. Thus, a change that would have actually been more accommodating of all faiths was ditched due to pressure from those who claimed to be protecting religious freedom.

Isn’t it ironic that those who claim to value Christmas so much are always the first ones to use the holiday as a club to bash others – usually in the pursuit of partisan goals?

One suspects that both O’Reilly and Blair might have had motives that have little do with defending the faith. Blair seems like a typical politician, scheming to get his name in the papers and basking in the national limelight of an appearance on O’Reilly’s show. As for O’Reilly, he won’t admit it but what really infuriates him is that a Muslim group had the gall to ask for privileges extended to Christians and Jews.

The Religious Right’s “war on Christmas” crowd knows that groups like Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union have nothing against the holiday. We simply oppose government promotion of religion.

Why do we oppose it? For starters, it’s bad for religion. Does anyone seriously believe government does a good job promoting religious holidays? Would anyone seeking a genuine religious experience at Christmas time expect to find it at city hall instead of a church? Yet Religious Right groups have repeatedly tried to force government to display the symbols of major faiths, overlooking the fact that putting a Nativity scene on the steps of city hall makes about as much sense as putting a tax assessor’s office in the nave of a church.

The Religious Right’s goal isn’t to promote faith. It’s to send a message that certain religions enjoy favored treatment from the government. This relegates everyone else to second-class citizenship. What a lovely message for the season of peace!

The Religious Right’s use of this issue to assault public education has also become tiresome. Our schools serve children of many different faiths and none. While they may teach about religious holidays in an objective manner, public schools are not the place for celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. That job belongs in the home and the church.

A little common sense is helpful. The courts have held that seasonal concerts in public schools may include a mix of secular and sacred songs. But if all the songs are religious, a school-sponsored holiday pageant looks like something from Sunday School and that’s inappropriate.

Religious Right leaders often complain that these events are now called “Winter Concerts” or “December Con­certs” instead of “Christmas Concerts.” Here’s a news flash for them: Not everyone is Christian, and not everyone celebrates Christmas. Public schools have an obligation to make all families in the community feel welcome at events. Groups that have nothing better to do than whine about what a school calls its concert should not be taken seriously.

Christmas is supposed to be a season of peace and good will. The Religious Right, by turning the holiday into just another platform for mean-spirited attacks, makes a mockery of the values of the very person whose birth they are supposed to be celebrating.