October is usually the time people's thoughts turn to ghouls, ghosts and goblins as leaves change colors, the air gets nippy and Halloween approaches.
In Berkley, Mich., however, some people decided that would be a good time to start fussing over Christmas decorations. Local Religious Right activists, angry because the city's December holiday display was not religious enough the previous year, proposed a change to the Berkley city charter.
The wording is quite specific.
It says, "[T]he city council shall ensure that each year the city displays on city hall property a Christmas holiday display from the Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday through the following January 6th.
"The Christmas holiday display," it continues, "shall include symbols and objects that depict or relate to the national holiday of Christmas and that includes a depiction of a nativity scene, which at the minimum includes proportionally-sized figures of the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The overall nativity scene display shall not be smaller in size than 4 feet by 4 feet."
A coalition of local citizens and religious leaders pulled together to oppose the mandate. Calling themselves Citizens for Religious Freedom, the activists worked to educate the community about ways in which the Religious Right was using the controversy to stir up discord.
On Nov. 6, voters spurned the Religious Right ploy and rejected the proposed change 55 percent to 45 percent.
The Berkley fight was an early skirmish over what the Religious Right calls the "War on Christmas." It's not likely to be the last.
For advocates of church-state separation, the period from the end of Thanksgiving until early January can be frustrating. For the past few years, national Religious Right groups have used claims of a "War on Christmas" to raise huge amounts of money and assail the church-state wall. They complain about everything from holiday pageants in local public schools to what terms retailers use in their ads.
Nothing escapes the gaze of the Religious Right's Christmas Police. Last year, Liberty Counsel, a legal group associated with the fundamentalist empire of the late TV preacher Jerry Falwell, went so far as to issue a "Naughty and Nice" list of retailers, based on what type of language stores used in sales circulars, print ads and Web sites.
Shops that advertised "Christmas Sales" were deemed "Nice." Those that offered a "Holiday Shopping Catalog" and the like were branded "Naughty." Liberty Counsel is already working on this year's list. On Oct. 30, the group issued an e-mail alert about it, accompanied by a request for donations.
"Liberty Counsel pledges to be a 'Friend' to those entities which do not censor Christmas and a 'Foe' to those that do," blared the statement. "ABC's Good Morning America observed that Liberty Counsel's Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign in past years had ignited a 'movement.'"
Liberty Counsel released the list on Nov. 12. "Nice" retailers include Amazon.com, Cabela's, Dollar General, Sears and Target. Those pegged "Naughty" include Circuit City, Ebay.com, Food Lion, Old Navy and K-Mart. (The latter is guilty of this horrible infraction: "They are selling 'Christmas Decorations' and 'Christmas Trees,' but they are calling Christmas 'The Holiday.'")
At the same time, public schools have come under relentless fire for putting "Winter Holidays" on school calendars or offering "Holiday Concerts." Religious Right legal groups also scrutinized the content of school pageants and harped incessantly about programs that failed to meet their benchmarks for religious correctness.
Religious Right groups usually start promoting the "War on Christmas" long before Halloween. Fund-raising letters roll off the presses, and legal groups like Liberty Counsel and the Alliance...