Copyright 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

November 16, 2002 Saturday Home Edition

SECTION: Religion Faith & Values; Pg. 1B

LENGTH: 874 words

HEADLINE: Suppression of Christmas symbols stirs backlash


SOURCE: Cox Washington Bureau

South Orange, N.J. --- Meg Uhlman was thrilled last month that her daughter's sixth-grade class planned to attend a local production of "A Christmas Carol."

She'd always been a fan of the Charles Dickens classic about the mean-spirited miser who discovers the joy of giving.

But her joy turned to rage when the trip was abruptly replaced with one to see "The Great Railroad Race" --- a decision made, she claims, to satisfy the dictates of political correctness. "Some parents had a problem with the fact that the story takes place at Christmastime," Uhlman said. "This is not a story about the birth of Jesus. This is a story with a good message for kids."

Kirk Smith, principal at South Orange Middle School, said the cancellation had more to do with concerns that the play didn't mesh with the class's curriculum. But he acknowledged that "there is a great sensitivity to putting students in awkward situations."

With the holidays approaching, Uhlman and some other parents claim that a "zero tolerance" for anything that hints at religion is creating a Christmas in which snowflakes are in, but angels are out.

Just last year, students in schools around the country were banned from handing out Christmas cards and reprimanded for wishing friends "merry Christmas." Many stores stopped playing Christmas music with religious themes. Even Christmas trees were cast out in some public locations. Those who fear another watered-down holiday season cite other evidence that Christmas has fallen victim to diversity concerns:

* In Covington, Ga., the Newton County school board removed the word "Christmas" from school calendars after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue.

* In St. Paul, Minn., red poinsettias were banned from a display at the county courthouse.

Some find such stories outrageous. Others say the separation between church and state must be maintained.

"We have safeguards in a pluralistic society because we don't want one religious group dictating what is good for all the people," said Anne Chernin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Florida. "We really believe that a society where everyone is allowed to flourish, including the minority, is a much better place to be. The important thing is to put oneself in the shoes of a child who is being made to feel different."

ACLU officials say schools must take care not to foster a certain religious view. They say the teaching of religion in public schools is barred by the Constitution, but teaching about religious holidays is not.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says he understands constitutional principles and sensitivities, but doesn't understand what he views as the blatant effort to make Christmas disappear. "Many of our elites are at war against the values that have undergirded our society from the beginning," he said. "Those responsible for making Christmas disappear are not against cultural celebrations per se; it's just Christian ones they deplore."

The Catholic League, which will erect a Nativity scene in Central Park in December, is battling New York City public schools so Nativity scenes can be displayed along with other religious and secular symbols. Donohue said a brouhaha erupted last year when the attorney for the schools' chancellor issued a memo saying it was permissible to display Jewish and Islamic symbols --- the menorah and the crescent and star --- in the schools, but not a Nativity scene.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., which provides legal counsel in religious discrimination cases, said education is supposed to involve an exposure to different viewpoints so long as it's not indoctrination. "Everyone's working so hard to get rid of everything controversial that we're creating a generation of nonthinking people," he said.

Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., said people have become so worried about inciting a backlash that they tend to do less than they legally could do.

"There's no question that schools have no place promoting any religion or teaching its doctrines as if they want students to embrace them as a religious system," he said. "But it's equally clear that the schools can't teach human culture and society without paying attention to the religious factors that are a part of human interaction."

Pettit said there was nothing overtly religious about "A Christmas Carol," but that it has the misfortune of having the word "Christmas" in its title. He agreed that schools and government agencies have been put in a precarious position as they try to achieve a separation of church and state.

"Administrators recognize that they may have to defend themselves against charges that are baseless but are time-consuming and inflammatory, and this is why they might avoid anything remotely controversial," he said.

Whatever the reasons, Uhlman sees a pattern emerging of society pushing all beliefs but Christian ones.

"The Christian majority has stayed silent about this," she said. "Not anymore."