School officials at a community college in western North Carolina replaced the word "Christmas" with "holiday" in a student club's announcement of a Christmas tree sale aimed at raising funds for charity, says a religious freedom law group. "We cannot market your trees in association solely with a Christian event," a college official told the club, according to Alliance Defending Freedom.
Lawyers from ADF responded by sending a letter to Western Piedmont Community College pointing out that it had violated the constitutional rights of the club.
"It's ridiculous that anyone would have to think twice about using the word 'Christmas' as part of a Christmas tree sale," said Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. "Not only is it perfectly constitutional to use the word 'Christmas,' it is unconstitutional to prohibit use of it. This is another perfect example of the immense misunderstanding that far too many college officials have about what the First Amendment truly requires."
The student-led BEST Society is sponsoring the sale, which ends on Dec. 6. The club completed the necessary paperwork to have the event announced through numerous means on campus. The text they requested, "The BEST Society will be selling Christmas Trees," appeared correctly initially in late October, but after a few days, the text was changed to "The BEST Society will be selling Holiday Trees," according to ADF.
"As a result of this forced changed to their advertisements," the ADF letter explains, "the BEST Society has received complaints from community members, several of whom have indicated that they will not purchase trees from the group because of the change in wording. This has resulted in direct harm to the club's fundraising activity, the proceeds of which are being used to support Angel Tree, an organization that provides Christmas gifts to children."
The letter goes on to say that "the censorship of the BEST Society's message, and the requirement that its advertisements use the phrase 'holiday tree' rather than Christmas tree, is a violation of the constitutional rights of the club members."
ADF is asking that the college, located in Morgantown, return the club's original wording to the announcements wherever they appear so that no legal action will be necessary.
Incidents such as the college's removal of "Christmas" have been tagged over the last several years as part of the "war on Christmas," a type of cultural debate in the U.S. where displays of the Christian holiday in the public square have been met with disapproval by primarily atheist groups. Although the activists often cite a "separation of church and state" clause in the Constitution as a defense for their reasoning, many legal experts say that their interpretation is a misnomer. The clause was meant to prevent government enforcement of a particular religion and not meant to exclude public expressions of faith.
Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.