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Saturday, November 10, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

More distortions in the culture war

Reposted from the Freethought Cafe by J.C. Samuelson

As has been previously documented, the war on the "War on Christmas" continues to be one of the major seasonal pillars of religious activism in this country. In prosecuting this so-called war, however, religious groups frequently resort to distortions or outright lies in order to further promote a persecution complex among their religious constituency. As before, the American Family Association (AFA) is among those leading the propaganda campaign.

The headline of an action item on the AFA website reads, "Federal government tells 85-year-old grandmother she cannot put an angel on Christmas tree." Having thus provoked our sense of fairness, righteous indignation begins to swell and brows furrow picturing grandma being preyed upon by jackbooted (but otherwise smartly dressed) government officials. The Feds must have surreptitiously implemented legislation governing how private citizens may decorate for the holidays.

Of course, this isn't really what happened. This is a not-so-subtle straw man that serves as a focal point for stirring the pot.

According to the AFA article, the Plant City Living Center reports that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) directed a ban on "any religious symbols or religious words associated with Christmas." This refers to an email dated October 29th which reads (in part):

Any religious symbols or religious words associated with Christmas should not be used. For example, the following items should not be on display: nativity scene (or any of the people represented in the nativity scene alone or together), the Star of David, angels, etc. This means no angel on your Christmas tree either.

The article also alleges that Christmas parties cannot be termed as such. This refers to a section in the email that contains the sentence, "[T]o be on the safe side you can always call them 'Holiday' parties." Moreover, the article alleges that these restrictions effectively banned the Center's tradition of having a Hanging of the Greens and Christmas party hosted by a Sunday School class from a nearby church, and says that the federal government has become "increasingly active in banning Christianity from the public square," citing the removal of certain words and phrases from monuments and ceremonies.

In reading the referenced email, however, we find that the AFA has again made much ado about nothing. Although the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII (42 U.S.C. 3601) does place limitations on religious displays in common areas - a fact acknowledged by the article - it places no limitations on what a person may do in the privacy of their own homes. Indeed, the AFA conveniently ignores this fact, leaving out the section of the referenced email that reads:

This decorating information applies to all common areas, including but not limited to: hallways, offices, community rooms, entrances, etc. Keep in mind that residents are free to decorate their apartments, as well as the exterior door to their apartment...however they wish.

It's clear from this one paragraph that concerns about residents' rights to express their religious faith during the holiday season are simply unfounded. If grandma wants to hang a crucifix, a wall-mounted nativity scene, angels, or other type of religious symbol on her door outside her apartment to express her religious convictions during Christmas, that's just dandy. If she wants to plant an angel at the top of her own tree, that's fine too. To be sure, she may not be allowed to place a tree with religious decorations out in the hall, but is that really a crisis of religious freedom?

With respect to the other allegation, that Christmas parties can't be called "Christmas" parties, this is false as well. The following is the relevant section of the email, this time in context:

Christmas dinners, parties, and get-togethers are acceptable. If your community does something like this, it must be open to all residents and be made widely known that all residents regardless of religious affiliation are invited to attend. To be on the safe side you can always call them "Holiday" parties.

Note that calling them Christmas parties is not at all prohibited. Instead, property managers are given the discretion to call them what they like, based on the desires of their communities. The suggestion to call them "Holiday" parties is a cautionary option, not a directive as the AFA alleged. In fact, the law says nothing of the sort with respect to religious activities.

Since we're on the subject, let's take a look at what the law actually says. According to HUD, the relevant restrictions appear to fall under the prohibition against advertising or making any statement that "indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap." In other words, no one gets preference. The idea is to keep common areas of public dwellings religiously neutral. In a pluralistic society, that makes perfect sense. Which is, of course, why the AFA objects.

Interestingly enough, the law grants special permission to religious organizations, associations, and societies, along with nonprofit organizations with religious affiliations to discriminate on a religious basis. That is, under the Fair Housing Act, a church, ministry organization, or other religious entity that owns property can choose to give preferential treatment to those who share their convictions, and in fact can refuse to deal equitably with those who don't.

To put it bluntly, some religious groups (including the AFA) want to be able to discriminate at will and hamstring the rights of those who don't believe as they do, but cry foul at the merest hint that religious freedom is being infringed upon.

Returning to the issue, what about the Hanging of the Greens event? Well, it does seem clear from the email that the angel-mounting part of the ceremony might have to be left out. However, this isn't necessarily clear from reading the Federal Housing Act. Perhaps this is an example of an overly cautious application of the law. Yet even if this is the correct application, the traditional party is hardly banned. The Sunday School class is still permitted to hold the event (even calling it a Christmas party), and instead might elect to mount another tree-topping decoration, such as a star. Even with its traditional Christian association with the Star of Bethlehem, certainly it's ambiguous enough to be permissible.

The bottom line is that the AFA is once again guilty of sensationalism, distortion, and substituting blatant falsehoods for facts. By perpetuating the myth of Christian persecution in America, they are able to mobilize their base to act in favor of a continued or increasingly special place for their faith in the public arena. Clearly, to some Christians, its worthwhile to bear false witness in order to manufacture controversy as long as the desired outcome is achieved.

Then again, is anyone surprised?

Stay tuned.