As the winter holiday season once again heats up over whether secularists have conspired to take the religious significance out of Christmas, Beliefnet invited John Gibson, host of Fox News Channel's "The Big Story With John Gibson," and author of 'The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought', and Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to wrestle with the December Dilemma.

  • John Gibson: Whose Tree Is It, Anyway?
  • Barry Lynn: Conifers Aren't Christian, John
  • Gibson: You're an anti-Christmas Insurgent, Barry
  • Lynn: You're Missing the Forest for the Christmas Trees, John
  • Gibson: Why the Rhetorical Thuggery, Barry?
  • Lynn: Santa's Tuned to CNN, John

    Dear Barry:

    Is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion?

    It's an important question, and I would expect a significant exercise in slithering from you as you respond to it. It's not that you're not a pleasant fellow, or well-spoken, or kind and cordial. You are, in fact, all of those things, but you are also one of my favorite interlocutors on this subject because of the exact trip-wire embedded in the above question.

    As the leader of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, you are a dogged advocate of the rule that education about religion in schools is ok, but celebration is not. At least I think you have laid out such a rule many times.

    It is a rule that many who are both secularists and religionists agree with, until the issue is raised: What is celebrating? What is celebrating the Christian religious holiday, Christmas? Is a Christmas tree a religious celebration? Is Santa Claus? Is the word "Christmas"? Are the colors red and green? I'm not certain about the word and the colors, but I believe you would assert that the Christmas tree and the Santa Claus are in fact religious symbols, and they therefore must not be present in schools.

    Let me remind everyone that these symbols have been declared secular, and thus entirely permissible, symbols of Christmas in places like schools and parks and public libraries where the issues of separation of church and state so often seem to arise.

    You declare a higher standard by focusing not on what the symbol is but how it is used, and you have asserted to me in at least one broadcast debate that both the Christmas tree and Santa Claus in a public school would be a celebration of religion, and therefore impermissible.

    You and your organization are not without influence. I have no idea of the actual numbers of school districts that still maintain a "Christmas break" on the school calendar, but it must be a rapidly shrinking number. In many schools, the Christmas break has morphed into the winter break, as if kids in school stay home to celebrate winter with their families.

    The Supreme Court has ruled that a religious symbol may be used in a public space if there is a secular purpose. The National Association of Boards of Education, based in Washington, D.C., says the reason there is a Christmas break is the simple fact that there are so many Christians in this country who would be taking time off for Christmas that there would be very few students or teachers left in school. The secular purpose of having a Christmas break, and calling it that, is recognition of the practical reality that the majority of students and teachers would be absent.

    Nonetheless, in school districts far and wide, Christmas break has been replaced by winter break. Why? Pressure from people like you. Threats of litigation from your former colleagues at the American Civil Liberties Union, the real muscle behind the anti-Christmas movement.

    You will say there is no war on Christmas, but you know that isn't so. You and your fellow secularists haven't held news conferences on the Capitol steps demanding Congress abolish the federal holiday on December 25, called Christmas. That would tip off too many people what you're up to. Instead, you go to school boards, librarians, park supervisors, and city hall managers and tell them that the Supreme Court of the United States requires the removal of that Christmas tree.