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Originally published Saturday, December 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Wishing someone "Happy Holidays" can get you in trouble

Fair warning to any public official or retailer responsible for calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree": You may receive a call from a...

Fair warning to any public official or retailer responsible for calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree": You may receive a call from a lawyer or become the target of a boycott.

Two groups, Liberty Counsel, affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Alliance Defense Fund, say they have almost 1,600 lawyer-volunteers ready to battle what some conservative Christians view as a secular movement against Nativity scenes, Christmas trees and even the greeting "Merry Christmas."

Governments that have put "holiday trees" on display have been lambasted, and retailers that wish customers "Happy Holidays" have been threatened with boycotts and pestered with phone calls and online petitions. Started three years ago, the campaign will be the groups' largest.

Falwell launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" with a stated goal of preventing religious discrimination. He has said he wants to take back Christmas from "grinches" such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"The fact is," he told ABC News, "we've gone on the offense now. We've put them on the defense. We're kicking their butts, and they're unhappy."

City leaders in Boston on Thursday night lighted what until a few days ago had been called a "holiday tree." Under pressure from conservative groups and after the Canadian logger who has long donated a tree to Boston said he would have thrown the tree into a wood chipper if he had known the city would relabel his gift, Mayor Thomas Menino changed the evergreen to a Christmas tree.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., this week ordered the Capitol Holiday Tree, so called since the 1990s, be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree.

And Lowe's home-improvement stores took down "Holiday Trees" banners at its locations this week after receiving more than 1,000 complaints. A spokeswoman said Lowe's has "proudly sold Christmas trees in our stores for decades."

High court ruling

The Supreme Court has ruled that recognizing religious holidays is fine in some instances but not in others. For instance, the court has ruled a creche in a courthouse unconstitutional because that would make it appear government was endorsing a particular religion.

But the inclusion of symbols from different religions in a display would be legal, as would a government-provided display that mixed religious and secular symbols such as reindeer.

The Falwell-led movement has received a couple of assists from Fox News Channel personalities.

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Bill O'Reilly, a Fox News talk-show host, has been documenting a so-called war on Christmas on his program, noting retailers that don't use "Christmas" in their ads. He said the effort's goal is "to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square."

"The town square is there to reflect the nature of the country," he said on his show, adding that "85 percent of the country is Christian." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 77 percent of Americans are Christian.

Fox News anchor John Gibson also is involved with a new book, "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought."

Groups deny threat

In any case, groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say Christmas is under no threat from them or anyone else.

"Christmas seems to be widely observed in this country," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United. "I don't know if [Falwell] has been to the mall lately, or any number of houses of worship, but it seems to me that Christmas is perfectly safe."

Conn said Falwell is using the Christmas campaign in an effort to restore his public image, damaged in 2001 after his comments that the Sept. 11 attacks were partly caused by "the abortionists and the feminists and the gays."

Conn also said Falwell is trying to gain media attention to help fundraising.

"I hope he gets a lump of coal in his stocking for stirring up all this trouble, because he certainly deserves it," Conn said.

Several stores that have been targeted in the Christmas campaigns say they never have had an anti-Christmas policy.

But Wal-Mart was caught in the fray when a seasonal worker sent an e-mail to a customer who had complained that employees were saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

According to a copy provided by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the e-mail — shown unedited — read: "Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than 'christmas' which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with 'christmas' red and white are actually a representation of the aminita mascera mushroom."

Apology given

After the league threatened a boycott of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer apologized and said the employee who wrote the e-mail no longer works for the company.

Target stores also have been a focus of the campaign. The conservative American Family Association has called for a boycott of Target because the retailer does not mention Christmas in advertising. The association said 600,000 people have signed its online pledge to observe the boycott.

In a statement, Target said there is "no trend or intent to ban the use of Christmas in our holiday advertising and marketing." The store said that, as recently as last year, the word "Christmas" was used in its in-store marketing and music. The retailer's holiday theme this year is "Gather Round," which is used in its ads.

Target said its employees can say "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays" or whatever they choose when greeting customers.

Some find the alleged war on Christmas more a manufactured problem meant to rally conservatives than a reality.

"I think it's disingenuous to say that Christmas is threatened just because government is not promoting your view or your favorite way of promoting the holiday," said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Commission for Religious Liberty, which stresses church-state separation.

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