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In schools and cities, battles over 'Christ' in Christmas

Grinch. Scrooge. These were the labels affixed to school administrators in New Jersey this year when they decided to ban religious Christmas music in the holiday concert lineup - an effort to maintain steadfast separation of church and state.

In Denver a group of faithful decided to push in the other direction, fighting back against what they see as a growing secularization of Christmas. After a religious-themed float was banned from an annual parade, they joined forces to belt out carols (the kind about mangers, not mistletoe), as the "Parade of Lights" passed them by.

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Across the country, a battle for the soul of the public square is being waged this holiday season. The question: Has the quest for inclusiveness gone so far down the road of sensitivity that children might be forgiven for not knowing what holiday many Americans will celebrate on Dec. 25?

People's answers depend largely on their position on the nation's liberal-conservative axis, but the debate goes beyond politics to emotions such as fond memories of singing carols or the awkwardness many non-Christians have felt at this season.

The battle isn't new, but experts say it's been intensifying this year. The growing diversity of the population has played a part. An even bigger factor: the red-blue political divide fueled by election campaigns.

"A good many conservative Christians have been emboldened in the last few years to try again ... to avail themselves of expressing their faith in public schools," says Charles Haynes, an expert on the debate over religion in the schools at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "In the larger culture war over just how Christian a nation we are supposed to be, the school is a key battleground."

Lynn Mistretta is one mother who has taken up arms. She found Christmas to be taboo in Scarborough, Maine., where she and her family moved five years ago. And it wasn't just Christmas. She learned that her son's class wouldn't be dressing up for Halloween. Then Valentine's Day was renamed Friendship Day. The last straw came when her 9-year-old returned home from school one day: He said he felt uncomfortable wishing his classmates a "Merry Christmas."

"Our children are feeling really repressed, they are intimidated about saying 'Merry Christmas,'" says Ms. Mistretta. "Does anyone think this is what James Madison meant?"

This fall Mistretta and another mother, Lisa Lowry, began attending board meetings and talking to principals, parents, and the superintendent. They set up a website, www.bringbackchristmas.org. They say support has been overwhelmingly in their favor, so far.

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For years, public schools across the country organized carol sings and "Secret Santa" gift exchanges, sometimes to the dismay of Jewish or Muslim students. City halls did not shy away from "decking their halls" as Dec. 25 inched closer. But after years of lawsuits that caused schools and local governments to pull back from such celebration, critics say the result has been a commercialization of the holiday season that overshadows both faith and culture.

Many agree that Christmas has become synonymous with the cash register instead of the crèche. In 2000, the last time the question was posed by the Gallup Organization, 75 percent of Americans said there is not enough emphasis on the religious basis of Christmas. Eight-five percent said the holiday was too commercialized.

It's not just about religion for Mistretta and Lowry. In fact, neither sees the school as a place to indoctrinate children, they say. Nor is it tradition. Yes, Lowry says, she would like her children to share some of the childhood memories she recalls easily: a big Christmas trees right in the class, belting out carols with her classmates.

But their fight is about cultural diversity, they say, and tolerance. "Whether you love it, hate it, or ignore it, it is," says Mistretta. "Do I want my children to hear in school that Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ? Yes. Do I also accept that non-Christians don't [believe that]? Yes. But to sweep it under the rug breeds shame and disrespect."

Some schools across the country have increasingly celebrated faith, say experts, bringing in various religious leaders to give lectures. They have educated staff members about how to teach religion. Their holiday concerts are multireligious and multicultural.

But this is not always the norm. In school districts across the country, carols were outright banned this year like so many copies of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Barry Lynn, the executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that's appropriate. "The other side calls it censorship," he says. "I call it a responsible effort to make no student feel like a second-class citizen in his/her own school."

One reason that schools are quick to ban holidays instead of encourage the education of all faiths - as suggested by Haynes's Freedom Forum guidelines sent to schools across the country - is that it's easier. And it happens year-round. Some Christians complain that Halloween, for example, celebrates paganism.

Schools often "take the path of least resistance," says Haynes. They'd rather say: "OK, we'll just cancel it."

But over time, schools may be more inclined to incorporate some of these guidelines, as they respond to demographic shifts. True, 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, according to a 2003 Gallup poll. But other religions and traditions, from Ramadan to Kwanzaa, are increasingly part of the culture.

Change can't come soon enough for Jim Finnegan, an activist with the God Squad, which has erected a life-size nativity scene in Chicago's Daley Center Plaza for nearly 20 years despite outcries from the American Civil Liberties Union and others. "The Christians seem to stay silent on this," he says. "But people are beginning to wake up."