Oklahoma Politics: December 2007 Archives

Thursday, it was reported that employees at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) were banned from using the word Christmas. Here's the latest statement from SWOSU president John Hays on the matter:

Update: No Ban on Christmas December 21, 2007

After the stories about Christmas were published stating that Southwestern Oklahoma State University banned the word 'Christmas' or Christmas decorations, I made inquiries to discover if there was any basis to the reports. The university does not have a policy that bans the word 'Christmas' or Christmas decorations. However, some supervisors or department leaders within the university who meant well may have suggested to employees that caution should be taken with respect to Christmas decorations. One thing led to another and the result was that some mistakenly assumed that Christmas decorations were being prohibited. I have met with various staff members to get to the bottom of the matter and have also had a pleasant discussion with Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel.

The university will continue to follow the law and to respect the right of all its staff members. Thus, the university will follow the general principles set forth by the courts regarding the display of religious symbols and/or Nativity scenes. A publicly sponsored Nativity scene on public property is constitutional so long as it is displayed in the context of other secular symbols of the holiday, like Santa Claus or a Christmas tree, so as not to appear to be endorsing a particular religion. A privately sponsored religious symbol or Nativity on public property where members of the public are permitted to display such symbols does not need an accompanying secular symbol to be constitutional.

In applying this general rule to the university, if a Nativity or other religious symbol of the holiday is displayed in a place open to the general public (like a lobby), the university will include secular symbols of the holiday in the nearby context. However, employees in their cubicles or offices may personally display a Nativity or other religious symbol of the holiday. In such setting, the employee need not include secular symbols of the holiday. Employees have always been and continue to be permitted to greet one another with the greeting 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Holidays.' The decision is up to each employee.

I trust that these guiding principles will clarify the matter regarding Christmas for the staff and the general public.

John Hays
SWOSU President

Am I wrong in noticing a bit of a contradiction with his earlier statement?

No Ban on Christmas December 20, 2007

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

On December 20, he refers to an official university action: "The university attempted to prevent the appearance as a state agency of endorsing any particular religion."

On December 21, he denies that official university action was involved: "The university does not have a policy that bans the word 'Christmas' or Christmas decorations. However, some supervisors or department leaders within the university who meant well may have suggested to employees that caution should be taken with respect to Christmas decorations. One thing led to another and the result was that some mistakenly assumed that Christmas decorations were being prohibited."

I'm happy that they've come around in support of freedom of expression, but it still looks like someone is playing a game of CYA.

Liberty Counsel, the national group which first called attention to the issue, is very pleased with the outcome:

Mr. Hays deserves a big "Thank You and Merry Christmas." His leadership in resolving the controversy over Christmas and the general guidelines he has set forth regarding the appropriate way a state school and its employees may acknowledge and celebrate Christmas serves as an example for others to follow. Christmas is a wonderful time of the year and it can and should be enjoyed by all.

The Oklahoman story adds a detail from the SWOSU spokesman:

Spokesman Brian Adler said employees were asked to keep public areas of the campus free of religious decor because not all students celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday.

Mark Tapscott, who brought the story into the blogosphere, spoke with John Hays by phone:

"We don't have any written guidelines now, but Matt [Staver of Liberty Counsel] tells me the court cases are pretty clear that when you do have something like a nativity scene on public property, like on City Hall, you also have to have some secular items with it," said John Hayes, SWOSU's president. Staver promised to provide Hayes with materials on court cases on the issue that would be useful in writing guidelines for the school's existing policy, the SWOSU official said.

Hayes said his university doesn't have "a new policy, there has just been a big mis-understanding. One of the offices told somebody they couldn't do something and it was over-emphasized." An employee had placed a snowman in a public area of an office that said "Merry Christmas," according to Hayes. The snowman was then moved to a different area, he said.

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."

Did you know there was a property tax election northeast of Tulsa on Tuesday? Neither did the voters involved, the county officials, or the area's leading property taxpayer, according to a story in the Oologah Lake Leader.

Northeast Technology Center, an Oklahoma vo-tech school district with campuses in Pryor, Afton, Kansas (the town, not the state), and Claremore, is holding a special property tax election on December 11, and according to the Oologah Lake Leader, they've been trying to keep it below the public radar. A legal notice was filed, but only in the smaller of the two papers that serve the city of Pryor, and nowhere else in the far-flung district, which covers most of Ottawa, Craig, Delaware, Mayes, and Rogers Counties, plus parts of Wagoner, Nowata, and Cherokee Counties.

One of the two ballot items would increase the building levy from 1 mill to 5 mills and the other item would make the new levy permanent. The district's overall levy, which includes 10 mills for operations, would increase from 11 to 15 mills. The increase would raise $4.4 million per year.

Via Tyson Wynn, who has more to say on the matter.

UPDATE: Tyson Wynn reports this morning that his IP was blocked by the Northeast Technology Center website:

Get this. I visited the NTC website via your link last night. I went back to look at the press release this morning and it says I don't have permission.

Tyson had no trouble accessing the site via another IP address. He said he'd then called NTC and was told they had no way to block an IP address, which is baloney. They're running Apache 1.3.34, and it's a simple matter of adding a line to the webserver configuration file. Amazingly, he was able to access the site again shortly after he spoke to them.

Why don't they want anyone to know about this election?

MORE: MeeCiteeWurkor has some thoughts on the NTC's stealth tax:

If you live in one of the counties listed above, be sure and hit the polls on Dec. 11th and shut down these people trying to take your money. Before you go, email this guy: garyfox@netechcenters.com Let him know exactly how you feel about his press release. He's the NTC marketing and communications director. I'm sure as a communications director, he'd love to communicate with you about this. Perhaps he could also explain his involvement with this sneaky little scheme.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Oklahoma Politics category from December 2007.

Oklahoma Politics: November 2007 is the previous archive.

Oklahoma Politics: January 2008 is the next archive.

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