Oklahoma college bans the word "Christmas" -- was it on Edmondson's advice?

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It has been reported that Southwest Oklahoma State University officials banned SWOSU employees from using the word Christmas on the advice of Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson. The story has appeared on a number of websites and blogs around the country today, along with reports of denials from spokespeople for SWOSU and Edmondson. The original story has since been confirmed by other sources, but many of the blogs that picked up the denials missed the later confirmations and additional details.

Confused? I was, too. Let's try to sort it all out, but here's the bottom line: SWOSU officials did ban their employees from using the word Christmas in emails, memos, or decorations. What's not clear is whether the AG's office had anything to do with that decision.

I received an email about this late this morning from Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, but didn't have a chance to post anything about it because of a lunchtime meeting. I'm glad I had to wait.

Here's the original alert from Erickson (highlights his):

Dear RedState Reader,

Drew Edmondson is the Oklahoma Attorney General.  Recently he rounded up conservative activists and threw them in jail for circulating petitions to get conservatives on the ballot.

Now, however, Oklahoma Atty Gen. Drew Edmondson has done something even nuttier.  He has issued an advisory opinion from the Attorney General's Office directing universities and public employees in Oklahoma to refrain from using or writing the word "Christmas."

Mark Tapscott with the Washington Examiner has the details.  Mark notes, "Edmondson issued an advisory opinion to officials at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford advising them that the word "Christmas" should not be spoken by any employee of the state school, not written in any official holiday decorations."

Attorney General Edmondson can be reached at 405-521-3921.  Please call and wish him a Merry Christmas and ask why he banned Christmas.

All the best and

Merry Christmas to you,

Erick Erickson

This alert was sent to a number of bloggers who posted the story, including Ace of Spades HQ, Hot Air, and Captain's Quarters.

Mark Tapscott, an Oklahoman who writes for the Washington Examiner, has updated his original post several times, reporting both the denials from Edmondson's office and the university, and an on-the-record confirmation from a university employee, admissions coordinator Connie Phillips:

A veteran administrative employee of SWOSU confirmed that she and her colleagues in her department were told by their boss "to take the word 'Christmas' off of our email signatures and not to use that word in any official correspondence."

Connie Phillips, SWOSU's admissions coordinator, said she refused to comply. "I told them they could write me up but I was not going to take it off my signature."

Other SWOSU employees were resisting the orders as well. "The people in the business office had a decoration up with the word 'Christ' in it and they were told to cover it over. They did but then they took it off. It's been on and off about three times now, I think."

Phillips said others in her office agreed and that a number of SWOSU employees came to work today wearing buttons saying "Merry Christmas" as a protest. "We just can't believe this is happening, this is  supposed to be America."

Asked if she was concerned about reprisals, Phillips said "I don't know, I guess we'll see. I've been here 24 years and I've got just four more years to retirement, so I hope not."

The story appears to have originated with a group called Liberty Counsel, which focuses on defending the free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. Here is Liberty Counsel's initial press release:

Weatherford, OK - Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU), has issued a disturbing policy which requires all employees to refrain from using the word "Christmas" in oral or written form. This directive was given by the university upon legal advice of the Oklahoma Attorney General, W.A. Drew Edmondson. Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter to SWOSU following a complaint from a university affiliate.

David Misak, the Director of Human Resources, recently visited various university departments and employee groups and informed everyone that any decorations featuring the words "Christ" or "Christmas" in any work or public areas of the university must be immediately removed. He also instructed everyone to discontinue the use of the term "Christmas" in their speech while on the job. This censorship specifically includes exchanging email greetings of "Merry Christmas" among employees or with nonemployees, whether initiated by a nonuniversity employee or not. Christmas remains a legal holiday for state employees, including those at SWOSU. The directive does not include any other legal holidays such as Thanksgiving or New Year's.

The announcements made by Misak are in direct violation of the United States Constitution and other federal law. The First Amendment prohibits government from being hostile to religion. Selecting one legal holiday for negative treatment and special restrictions solely because it has religious aspects clearly demonstrates hostility toward religion. Moreover, the free speech rights of employees at the university are infringed when their speech is censored solely because of a religious viewpoint or perceived religious viewpoint. A public employer like SWOSU also violates the Civil Rights Act when it prohibits its employees from using the words "Merry Christmas."

Liberty Counsel's demand letter requests an immediate reversal of the university's unconstitutional policy. Liberty Counsel's Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign educates and, if necessary, litigates to insure that Christmas is not censored.

Mathew D. Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented: "Of all places, a public university should foster free expression. How can public university officials honestly believe that the state can prohibit its employees from wishing each other 'Merry Christmas?' After all, Christmas is a state and federal legal holiday."

After the rash of denials, Liberty Counsel issued a second release explaining how the story came to them:

Earlier today we informed you in a Liberty Alert about a ban on the word "Christmas" by Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.

We believe that your emails and phone calls are making an impact. We are hearing more details from our sources including some within the university.

When public officials start to feel the heat of public scrutiny, they often try to make excuses or deny that events took place. Some staff members who are answering the phone are even telling people that the incidents we are reporting never happened!

We decided to go on the offense and release some additional details on this situation.

After Weatherford City Commissioner Warren Goldmann heard from a constituent that the word "Christmas" was banned by the university, Goldmann contacted the Provost of the university, Dr. Blake Sonove. Dr. Sonove confirmed the "Christmas" ban policy and indicated that the university was relying on an opinion from Attorney General Drew Edmonson. Commissioner Goldmann then reported the information to Liberty Counsel.

Connie Phillips, an Admissions Coordinator, reported that David Misak, Director of Human Resources, entered the registrar's office with Tom Fagan, Vice President of Finance. They ordered the words "Christ" and "Christmas" covered up in decorations and instructed that there could be no use of "Merry Christmas" in emails!

A records coordinator verified that her department was told they could not use "Christmas" in email or voice mail.

The same action occurred in the business office where someone asked for the directive in writing and was told that the written policy is still being drafted. Another person provided Misak with written information showing that using "Christmas" is constitutional, but Misak would not change his stance. 

Additionally, the ITS department was told to change the introduction page of the university's campus-wide database. The page has been edited since yesterday to remove a statement that said: "Have a very Happy Holiday ... Merry Christmas ... Happy New Year."

This censorship of Christmas is a trend that must be changed!

Now that you have these specific details, don't let the university play games with you on the phone!

The university president, John Hays, has the authority to change university policy. Call or email him and urge him to reverse the ban on the word "Christmas." 

His contact information is: Telephone (580) 774-3766, Fax (580) 774-7101, email president@swosu.edu.

Thank you for your help. If you are aware of similar situation, let us know. You can also download a copy of our Legal Memo on Christmas in the Workplace at www.LC.org. If you cannot open the document from our web site, contact us and we will mail you a copy.

SWOSU president John Hays has a non-denial denial on the school's website:

An attempt to be respectful of the diverse religious population at Southwestern Oklahoma State University has been misinterpreted as an attempt to ban Christmas on the Weatherford campus.

The rumor of this ban is not true.

The university attempted to prevent the appearance as a state agency of endorsing any particular religion.

John Hays
SWOSU President

No one was saying that Christmas was banned at SWOSU, only that employees were banned from using the word "Christmas." Hays's mention of "an attempt to be respectful of the diverse religious population" at SWOSU and that the "university attempted to prevent the appearance as a state agency of endorsing any particular religion" acknowledges that an official action was taken. Hays's statement is entirely consistent with the alert from RedState, the story by Mark Tapscott, and the press release by Liberty Counsel.

What remains a mystery is the involvement, if any, of Attorney General Drew Edmondson. Given his support for New Jersey's lawsuit trying to force the Boy Scouts to allow homosexual men to be scoutmasters and his handcuffing of three leaders of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights petition drive, it wouldn't surprise me if he had weighed in on the side of the anti-Christmas Grinches. He has three years until the next election, and his soft-spoken and folksy manner seems to erase any memory Oklahoma voters have of his leftish antics.

Drew Edmondson's office has issued a denial as well, saying that the AG does not advise SWOSU, saying that no such advice was issued, calling the people at Liberty Counsel liars, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Edmondson's name came up because SWOSU provost Blake Sonove told Weatherford City Commissioner Warren Goldmann that the policy was based on an opinion by Edmondson. There's the possibility that Sonove was mistaken or that Goldmann misunderstood what Sonove said. Perhaps the opinion came from an attorney for the university or an attorney for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (OSRHE), the governing body for colleges like SWOSU.

There's also the possibility that SWOSU was relying on an opinion that Edmondson issued to another state agency under different circumstances. Many AG opinions are archived on the Oklahoma State Courts Network. My searches on "Christmas," "religious," and "sectarian" didn't turn up anything applicable, but there may be opinions that have been issued but not yet posted online.

We'll keep you posted about any developments.

UPDATE: Mark Tapscott reviews the events of the day and comes to a complementary conclusion:

Second, it's clear somebody at SWOSU got the idea that employees there should be told to stop using such terms as "Christmas" and "Christ."  I have no doubt that Edmondson personally didn't provide SWOSU "legal advice" in a formal advisory opinion. The man isn't dumb. But AGs and their staff provide informal advice every day, sometimes in person, sometimes in email, sometimes on the telephone. Sometimes even to journalists!

Maybe that somebody mis-understood something that was said to them by the AG or his staff. Or maybe that somebody simply took it upon themselves and informally advised SWOSU managers to spread the word among the troops. That somebody ought to come forward and clear up the confusion.

If they do and it turns out Edmondson had absolutely nothing to do with anything here, I will promptly retract the assertion in my original post that he was "banning Christmas" or had "issued an advisory opinion" to that effect.

But "Okie Napoleon" stays. Even if he's not the Grinch who banned Christmas, he's more than earned the sobriquet.

Tapscott says he tried to call SWOSU Provost Blake Sonove, but the call was returned by a spokesman instead. Seems like Dr. Sonove is the person who can solve the mystery of where school administrators got the idea they needed to have employees stop saying "Christmas."

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DavidS said:

So SWOSU will be holding classes next week so they won't look to be favoring a religion by taking off during a religous holiday????

Julie said:

Perpetuating rumors and lies isn't very Christian. Why even bother?

s said:

SWOSU I was told by someone close to a former football player who was trying for a "university degree" from there a joke when it comes to certain football players getting a major helping hand.

They were worried a particular SWOSU former football player couldn't handle the normal classes expected because normal classes were too hard so in order for the football player to be able to play during football season when the football players had to keep grades acceptable, he had people from SWOSU allowing him to take only sports type classes.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 20, 2007 6:09 PM.

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