Conservative, Liberal Lawyers Resume Christmas Clashes

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:05 PM EDT

( - Often referred to as the "Christmas Tree wars," the annual clashes are about to resume between lawyers from pro-Christian groups on one side and attorneys determined to keep any religious references out of public life on the other side.

The conservative Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) reports that it has notified more than 3,600 school districts nationwide about the rules regarding the school-sponsored celebration of Christmas. It's part of the ADF's Christmas Project, initiated last year.

Seven hundred attorneys will be available "to combat any attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property," according to an ADF release.

ADF President Alan Sears explained that his group thinks many public school administrators misinterpret the laws about "separation of church and state" and overstep their bounds in preventing religious expression.

"The phrase 'separation of church and state' is not in the U.S. Constitution," Sears noted, "but because of the fear, intimidation, and disinformation groups like the ACLU promote, many public officials and educational leaders mistakenly believe it is their duty to silence Christian religious expression."

The ADF, which states that its goal is to "aggressively defend religious liberty," issued a pamphlet to the school districts with answers to seven questions that school administrators might have about their power and responsibility during the holiday season.

The answers rely on court decisions to answer questions about what can or should be censored and why.

"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," the pamphlet states.

"The bottom line," according to the pamphlet, is that, "It's okay to say 'Merry Christmas,' regardless of the legal threats from the ACLU and its allies."

Paul Silva of the American Civil Liberties Union responded to by email, first stating that "this is generally not the sort of thing we comment on," but then adding that the ADF pamphlet has "many misstatements."

"We actually defended students who were punished for distributing candy canes with religious messages during Christmas season last year," Silva said, referring to one point in the ADF release that he said implies that the ACLU was opposed to those students.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told that schools should be careful about accepting advice from the Alliance Defense Fund.

"The ADF has an agenda that's trying to promote ... more religious activity in public schools," Boston said. "And what they're telling schools may or may not be true."

He said administrators should "get something from a more objective source" like the attorneys affiliated with their state's department of education.

Boston said he has not read the pamphlet that the ADF is sending to schools, but added that it's more important to pay attention to what the courts have decided. "What the courts have said is that the use of religious symbols in a public school classroom must have a legitimate educational purpose," Boston warned.

If symbols are being displayed to "celebrate the religious aspect of a holiday or to promote religion," it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, he added -- that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion ..."

The First Amendment also mandates that Congress make no law "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.

However, the Americans United website argues that "Public schools have no right to usurp parental authority by imposing religion on schoolchildren." While it concedes that students in public schools "have the right to pray on their own in a non-disruptive fashion, and schools may teach about religion as a part of objective instruction," it states that "mandatory prayer, Bible reading or other religious activities sponsored by public schools are fundamental violations of the right of conscience."