Humbug! Christmas Steeped in Controversy

With all the controversy swirling around Christmas (search) lately, it seems as though the Grinch and Scrooge are running the show this year.

Across the country, debates are brewing over everything from nativity scenes in town squares to Christmas carols in school, with some groups trying to put Christ back into the holiday and others taking offense at public displays of religion.

"We're seeing a systemic attempt by groups … to scrub Christmas from the public square," Joshua Carden, an attorney with the Christian legal organization the Alliance Defense Fund (search), told FOX News on Friday. "The Supreme Court has never declared nativity scenes, the singing of Christmas carols and other traditional Christmas celebrations unconstitutional."

But others say some of the objections are legitimate because the Constitution forbids government entities from emphasizing one religion over another.

"If there's one thing the First Amendment does is it prohibits any government or government agency — public schools are government agencies — from elevating one faith above another," Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma (search), told FOX News on Friday. "There's no minority faith that can be treated as a second-class citizen."

Here's a sample of what's happening in cities around the nation:

— New Port Richey, Fla.: County officials banned the display of Christmas trees from public property and buildings and removed the last of them on Wednesday, a decision that outraged many in the community. On Friday, the Pasco County attorney reversed that ban, saying the Supreme Court had never declared Christmas trees religious symbols.

— Bay Harbor Islands, Fla.: A local resident offered to donate a Christmas nativity scene to be displayed alongside a public Hanukkah exhibit and was at first turned down by town officials. She took the matter to federal court, and the judge sided with her, forcing the town to allow her to put up her display.

— Plano, Texas: A federal judge ordered the Plano school district to let students give gifts that include religious messages — like Christian-themed candy canes — at school holiday parties. Parents had sued this week over the school's policy banning any religious expression in classrooms, though officials said they'd already reversed the policy Dec. 1.

— Maplewood, N.J.: Baby Jesus, herald angels and other religious figures won't be sung about in holiday choral concerts this year, after a few people complained last year that Christian references in lyrics made non-Christians feel left out. To avoid similar problems this time around, the music director decided that all songs representing any religion were to be omitted from the program. Many parents were unhappy with that edict, saying at a recent school board meeting that the policy is based on misinterpretations of school rules. The matter won't be voted on by the school board until January, after this year's holiday concerts are over.

Putting Christ Back in Christmas

While some are trying to take the religion out of this season, others — mainly conservative Christian groups — are on a crusade to put it back into the holiday.

In Terrebonne Parish, La., an organization is petitioning to add "Merry Christmas" to the red-lighted "Seasons Greetings" sign on the main government building and is selling yard signs that read, "We believe in God. Merry Christmas." And a Raleigh, N.C., church recently paid $7,600 for a full-page newspaper ad urging Christians to spend their money only with merchants who include the greeting "Merry Christmas" in ads and displays.

In California, a group called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas is boycotting Macy's (search) and its corporate parent, Federated Department Stores, accusing them of replacing "Merry Christmas" signs with ones wishing shoppers "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." The organization cites "the recent presidential election showing political correctness is offending millions of Americans."

Federated, for its part, says that it has no ban on such greetings and that its store divisions can advertise as they see fit and store clerks are free to wish any customer "Merry Christmas." Macy's says its ads commonly use the phrase.

"There is a revival taking place in our nation that is causing Christian and right-minded people to say, 'Wait a minute. We've gone too far,'" says the Rev. Patrick Wooden Sr., pastor of the Raleigh church. "We're not going to allow the country to continue this downward spiral to the left."

But the push from the religious right troubles Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search).

"This mixing of secular and religious symbols ought to be seen as a bad thing, not a good thing, for Christian believers," he said. "Unfortunately, some of the Christian pressure groups seem to have it backwards."

Added Lynn: "I think it's fair to say it's a mistaken notion that they have a mandate to put more nativity scenes up because George Bush was elected."

The battle over the manger on the city hall lawn is nothing new. People expect the annual tussle over the separation of church and state.

But the "keep the Christ in Christmas" contingent is particularly agitated this year over what its members see as a troubling trend on Main Street: Target stores banning Salvation Army bell ringers; UPS drivers complaining to a free-speech group that they have been told not to wish people a "Merry Christmas"; and major corporations barring religious music from cubicles and renaming the office Christmas bash the "end of the year" party.

"I think it is part of a growing movement of people with more traditional values, which make up the majority of people in this country, saying enough is enough," says Greg Scott, a spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund. "Ninety-six percent of us here in America celebrate Christmas."

Amid stories of schools banning the singing of carols on buses, Scott's group has distributed to more than 5,000 schools a seven-point legal primer citing 40 years of case law that says it is OK to mention Christmas in public places. And the group has about 800 lawyers waiting in the wings in case that notion needs to be reinforced.

To that same end, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which says it received the UPS driver complaints, has reissued its "12 Rules of Christmas" guide to celebrating the birth of Jesus.

"I think the businesses and the schools have just gone too far; this is the final straw," says Institute president John W. Whitehead. "It's supposed to be a time of, what, peace and freedom and fun. And they've kind of made it into a secular ... kind of gray day."

Conservative radio and TV talk show hosts have chortled over some recent incidents of what they consider political correctness run amok.

In Kansas, The Wichita Eagle (search) ran a correction for a notice that mistakenly referred to the Community Tree at the Winterfest celebration as a "Christmas Tree." And the mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologized after a news release mistakenly referred to the Dec. 21 City Holiday Party as a "Christmas Party."

But to many, the threats and demands that stores put up "Merry Christmas" signs are no laughing matter.

"Why not simply require stores owned by Jews to put a gold star in their ads and on their storefronts?" the Rev. Jim Melnyk, associate rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, N.C., wrote in a letter to the editor.

FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Alisyn Camerota, Orlando Salinas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.