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Evangelicals Use Courts to Fight Restrictions on Christmas Tidings

"Most cities and counties know that if they're going to put a menorah and Nativity scene on public property, then they better surround it with [secular symbols such as] candy canes and some reindeer," he said.

The issue today, Sekulow said, is enforcement. Through ignorance, hostility or a desire to avoid controversy, some elected officials and school administrators treat religion "like asbestos in the ceiling tiles" and bar observances that clearly are permissible, he said.

Doug Morgan and son Jonathan, at their home in Plano, Tex., show the kind of items Jonathan gave out at his school's "Winter Break" party. (Juan Garcia -- Dallas Morning News Via AP)

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On Friday, the ACLJ persuaded officials in Pasco County, Fla., to reverse their decision to remove Christmas trees from all public buildings. Daniel R. Johnson, an assistant county administrator, said the removal had been triggered by a request from a resident to put a Hanukah menorah next to the Christmas tree in the public library.

At first, county officials feared that "if you open the door to one, then you must open the door to all, and not just during the holiday season, but all year long," Johnson said. But on further review, he said, the county's attorney decided there would be "little legal risk" in a temporary display of both a menorah and a Christmas tree, along with a sign saying they are symbols of "our legacy of freedom."

In other cases across the country, Christian groups have argued in court this month against a New York City school policy that allows menorahs during Hanukah and the Islamic crescent during Ramadan but not Nativity scenes during Christmas. A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday ordered the town of Bay Harbor Islands to grant a resident's request to erect a creche next to a local synagogue's menorah on public property.

In Maplewood, N.J., Christian groups threatened to sue over the school district's policy of allowing secular songs, such as "Jingle Bell Rock," but not hymns, such as "Silent Night," at student concerts. In Mustang, Okla., voters angry over the school superintendent's decision to remove a Nativity scene from a student play helped defeat a $10.4 million bond issue to build a new elementary school.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the "new strategy of the Christian Right is forced inclusion -- they take a secular display and demand that Christian symbols and carols be added."

Christian talk radio, Lynn said, is fueling a "huge movement saying there is a war against Christmas both by the government and by private business, which I think is nonsensical, because unless you live in a cave in America in December, you know it's Christmas."

But Anthony R. Picarello Jr., a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which works for greater freedom of religious expression, said it is not easy to say which side is truly the aggressor. "If these Christmas pageants and displays have been done for a long time and now there's a push to exclude them, then it appears to be aggression from the left. If they haven't been done and someone's suing to add them, then it appears to be aggression from the right."

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