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Is phony X-mas controversy rousing real discrimination?
Dec. 7, 2005

It doesn't take much to get FOX commentator Bill O'Reilly worked up, but these days it seems as if the tiniest thing can set him off. Take the Grinch-like plot to take Christmas out of the federal holiday lineup.

The hard-driving, browbeating journalist demanded to know from Secular Coalition for America lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown -- in both her appearances on his show -- if eliminating Christmas was on her agenda.

She gave him a composed, level-headed response, that government observing Christmas was indeed an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, but that secularists had more important issues to address.

Of course, it wouldn't surprise me if O'Reilly, and others of his ilk, weren't engaging in one of those phony, rumor-mongering episodes meant to scare America into listening to their shrill voices. Like the untold scourge of American flag burning occurring across the nation, or the threat of gay marriages undermining so-called "traditional" marriages, there is very little evidence to suggest that any of these issues are real problems. Such alarmist crazes occur spasmodically throughout the political season and are just another indication that the Far Right has exhausted its social agenda.

It really is flailing a dead horse. Christmas has become a secularized (indeed commercialized) holiday -- as well as being a religious one -- and therefore does not violate the Constitution, according to the courts, if it is observed as an official holiday. Indeed, the unbridled commercialization of Christmas almost -- almost-- makes one wish for a holiday more focused on religiosity.

Anyway humanists have better things to do than getting embroiled in many of these holiday squabbles. Or do we? One recent permutation of this eternal and infernal debate is whether or not a store, and its salespeople, should greet customers with a more inclusive "Happy Holidays," rather than proclaiming "Merry Christmas" to all.

First we should note that, when it comes to the holidays, individuals are granted certain liberties that the government is not.

The First Amendment principle of church and state separation only affects what government can and can't do. For example, when erecting winter holiday displays, government may display religious symbols on its property, but it must balance them with secular symbols, if the Constitution is not to be offended.

Privately-owned malls are under no such legal obligation. Still there may be something to all this hullabaloo. Shopping malls are not private property in the strictest sense of the word. They are places of public accommodation and cannot discriminate concerning their customer's race, creed, gender, religion etc.

Also, since the traditional public spaces of yesteryear such as "Main Street", town squares, and community clubs are in the midst of vanishing, or at least diminishing in importance as meeting places, many state governments are designating malls as their replacement. Alexis Tocqueville once described such locales as intermediary institutions and deemed them vital for strengthening civil society and democracy. Some states require malls to allow individuals to hand out pamphlets and other leaflets in their open spaces, in order to encourage political speech, as long as they don't harass customers or cause a ruckus. Here, in Albany, N.Y. a controversy ensued a few years back when a local mall ejected a person from its property for wearing a 'Give peace a chance' shirt. Now some legislators are pushing for a law that would prohibit malls from repeating such an incident.

Malls, however, will still have control over the content of their own advertisements, and that's as it should be. And if they want to display inclusive 'Happy Holidays' advertisements, or more holiday-specific signs such as 'Merry Christmas,' -- or greet their customers in like fashion -- it really doesn't matter to me.

The real determining factor here for businesses is the bottom line -- not whether non-Christians will be offended if they are thoughtlessly assumed under the mantle of the Christmas worshippers. Maximizing profits seems to be the banal message of the season. Peace on Earth will just have to wait awhile longer.

Tim Gordinier, Ph.D., is the director of public policy of the Institute for Humanist Studies. A registered lobbyist for humanism, he earned his doctorate in public law with a concentration on the religion clauses of the First Amendment. He is the author of the online course Religion and the Constitution, offered through the Institute's Continuum of Humanist Education. For information about the IHS public policy department, visit: To receive Gordinier's NYS legislative updates by email, visit:

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To read transcripts and watch videos of Secular Coalition for America Lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown on The O'Reilly Factor, see:

[Editor's Note: The Secular Coalition for America is a national 501(c)(4) lobbying organization in Washington D.C. dedicated to promoting secularism and humanism on the federal level. Members of the SCA include the American Humanist Association, the Atheist Alliance International, the Internet Infidels, the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Secular Student Alliance. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers is an honorary member of the SCA.]

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