NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–December is the busiest month for the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization specializing in religious freedom cases, because of the excessive number of controversies related to Christmas.
“When I was in private practice before I started doing this work fulltime, it was kind of a rule of thumb that December was always a very slow month,” Mike Johnson, an ADF attorney, told Baptist Press. “In this work, it’s our busiest time of the year.”
Johnson said new violations of religious freedom around Christmas are emerging constantly all around the nation, even in the most conservative areas. And schools are prime targets.
“The school ground is the battleground now in the culture war when it comes to religious expression,” he said. “Teachers are in the crosshairs.”
One key factor in the large number of controversies connected to schools is principals and supervisors who don’t understand the laws, and another is the threat of lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal organizations, Johnson said.
“We’ve seen this political correctness movement now develop over the last decade or so,” he told BP. “… A lot of the school officials that we deal with have no hostility toward the Christian faith. It’s not their objective to silence religious expression. It’s just that they’re reacting to the threat and intimidation of groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“The last thing in the world they want to do is waste precious resources on attorneys’ fees and court judgments,” Johnson added. “The ACLU has convinced them that if they don’t remove all religious expressions, that they’re the next target.”
Because ADF believes the first step to reducing the religious freedom violations is educating school officials about the laws, ADF sent pamphlets this year to school districts across the country telling them specifically what is allowed and what is not allowed regarding Christmas.
“We’re going out there to show them the other side of the coin to say, ‘No, [the ACLU and other groups] are wrong. What they led you to believe is incorrect, and we’re there to assist. If you get in trouble, we’ll defend you free of charge,'” Johnson said.
Other religious freedom legal organizations such as Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Rutherford Institute distributed similar guidelines for Christmas observances in an effort to minimize violations and the continued fighting over what is appropriate.
The ADF pamphlet, called “The Truth About Religious Expression at Christmastime,” presents basic questions schools might have regarding the observance of Christmas, followed by answers backed by references to Supreme Court cases. ADF notes that “no court has ever ruled that the Constitution requires government officials to censor Christmas carols, eliminate all references to Christmas, or silence those who celebrate Christ’s birth.”
— Christmas carols may be sung in public schools without offending the Constitution of the United States, ADF said. “Although challenges have been brought, public schools have successfully defended against constitutional challenges to the singing of Christmas carols by their students.”
— School officials may refer to the school break in December as a “Christmas holiday” without offending the Constitution, ADF said. “Congress has proclaimed Christmas to be a legal public holiday.”
— School districts may not ban teachers or students from saying Merry Christmas, ADF said. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent County School District in 1969 said teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
— The religious origins of Christmas can be studied in the classroom without offending the Constitution, ADF said. In Stone v. Graham in 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion or the like.”
— Students have the right to express religious viewpoints in school assignments, reading materials and clothing, ADF said. Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 said the Constitution “affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.”
— Public schools may display religious symbols, ADF said. School officials may display nativity scenes and other symbols if they have a clear educational purpose and if they are displayed for legitimate secular purposes, such as to celebrate a holiday and to depict its origins.
With reporting by Michael Foust. To learn more about religious freedom and public schools regarding Christmas, visit www.telladf.org/christmas.