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Christian law centers across the country are trying to keep the “Christ” in Christmas, sending letters to school districts and filing lawsuits as the holiday draws near. The centers allege that schools nationwide are illegally eliminating Christmas carols and any reference to Christianity, and towns are prohibiting displays of nativity scenes on public property, though religious symbols of faiths other than Christianity can often be found there. The Thomas More Law Center, the self-described “Christian answer to the ACLU,” has filed suits in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., and New York City, alleging that Christianity is being excluded. “[The issue] is confusion over what the law really is on public displays,” said Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “There’s this knee-jerk reaction of public schools to remove anything that has to do with Christianity. Other religions they deem part of the diversity efforts.” Last week, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled that the town of Bay Harbor Islands must allow resident Sandra Snowden to display a Christian nativity on public property where a local synagogue’s menorah is displayed. Sandra Snowden v. Town of Bay Harbor Islands, No. 04-23012 (S.D. Fla. 2004). The judge ruled that the Florida town had violated the Constitution’s establishment clause, which requires the separation of church and state and freedom of religion, by allowing, since 2001, only Jewish symbols during the holiday season. Defense counsel Bruce Johnson of Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & McDuff in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., argued that placing a nativity scene on public property was a violation of the establishment clause because it would indicate that the town endorsed Christianity. At the crux of the issue is a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573. The high court ruled that a cr�che in a county courthouse violated the establishment clause, but that a menorah displayed with a Christmas tree outside a city office building was permissible. In New York, the Thomas More Law Center has a case pending in the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the Department of Education, Andrea Skoros v. City of New York, No. 04-1229-CV. The center is challenging the city’s approval of the Jewish menorah and the Islamic star and crescent for Ramadan despite not allowing a Christian nativity display in public schools. The New York Department of Education declined to comment, as the case is ongoing. The department’s policy on religion in the holiday season states that the display of secular holiday symbols is permitted, including Christmas trees, menorahs and the star and crescent. “Holiday displays shall not appear to promote or celebrate any single religion,” the guidelines state. ‘Taliban in reverse’ “Even with the proliferation of so many other religions in this country, I don’t believe any serious observer would say that Christianity is anything besides the dominant religion and very much part of the dominant culture,” said Nadine Strossen, the president of the ACLU. “[Christian law centers are] trying to justify their agenda . . . .If anything, it’s the groups that are saying that there’s a problem that are trying to strike fear into the hearts of schools.” Strossen said that the ACLU believes religion should be a part of the holiday season, as long as a school or government does not promote or preach any single religion. But Christian law centers allege that the restrictions are getting out of hand. “People are afraid to say merry Christmas,” Thompson said. “It’s done to such a degree it’s almost the Taliban in reverse.” The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal group in Scottsdale, Ariz., that says it promotes “family values,” has sent out more than 6,000 letters to school districts across the country outlining the law, and saying that it’s OK to celebrate Christmas in school. “All of a sudden schools are believing that they have to exclude either Christian or religious viewpoints in general,” said Dale Schowengerdt, litigation staff counsel for the ADF. “It’s really a new thing. It seems like hostility toward religion. Guys like the ACLU have been on this campaign of disinformation and intimidation. I think that’s really what’s behind it.”

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