Santa Claus is Coming to Town... Not!

Santa Claus may not be coming to town after all.

That's the word from public officials in several districts across the nation who have banned Jolly Old Saint Nick -- and symbols like him -- from appearing in public places because they say they are too loaded with religious meaning.

The move has critics screaming "humbug!"

"If people want to put up a Christian mural or a menorah or whatever, they should be free to do so," said syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.

But supporters of such bans say public officials "deserve our support" for attempting to create a tolerant environment for all creeds during the holidays.

"Religious holidays should be celebrated enthusiastically by those who believe in them," said Steven Bensen, a spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "(But) we believe religion will succeed if government stays out of it."

Some examples of this year's prohibitions:

-- In Vermont, children aren't allowed to say "Merry Christmas," only "Happy Holidays."

-- In one California school district, drawings of Santa are prohibited.

-- Arizona has banned Santa, nativity scenes, decorated trees, "Santa Claus-related items," and the Star of David from public offices.

-- In Stillwater, Minn., teachers can't wear Christmas sweaters since they've been deemed inappropriate. And in the town of Rochester, Minn., two students were reprimanded for saying "Merry Christmas" in a holiday skit.

-- In New York City, nativity scenes are banned from public schools, but menorahs and the Muslim star and crescent are acceptable because they are deemed "secular" symbols by the chancellor of schools.

Some communities have rebelled against the anti-Christmas spirit. King County, Wash., officials reversed their ban on employees wishing each other a "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah" after a barrage of criticism nationally. The town council in Kensington, Md., that banned Santa Claus from the annual tree lighting ceremony quickly re-instated him when protesters planned a "million-Santa march."

But some public officials fearing nasty, expensive lawsuits -- even ones they have a chance of winning -- would rather prohibit all symbols outright than face lawsuits like those often brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. One such instance: Newton County, Georgia school officials decided to remove the word "Christmas" from school calendars rather than face legal action threatened by the ACLU.

"In my view there is in an overall hostility to religion," said Patrick Scully, a spokesperson for the Catholic League, who added that challenges by the ACLU against communities that display religious symbols face an uphill battle in court.

Scully said that's because of a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that religious symbols placed next to secular ones pass constitutional muster. The decision has led to a practice in many public places of grouping symbols representing different faiths and secular interests together to ensure that the government is not endorsing any one over the other.

The ACLU declined comment. But Rev. C. Welton Geddy, who works alongside the ACLU on a number of church and state separation issues, said the movement afoot is not to wipe the holidays clean of religion but to make sure all religions are accommodated.

"I have heard the complaints about teachers telling their students not to say 'Merry Christmas.' That's ridiculous," Geddy said. "Certainly we oppose a government establishment of any expression of religion as the official national expression, but I would adamantly defend the rights of people of faith to express their faith in appropriate ways in both private and public places."