Thursday, December 22, 2005


Troops are massed on the ground floor of a nondescript, green-glassed building that's become ground zero for an annual campaign to defend Christmas. The "soldiers" lined up for the fight are 832 lawyers ready to charge any municipality or public school that dares excise the mention or observance of the world's most widely celebrated holiday. A framed poster near the entrance asks: "Have you ever experienced discrimination because you are a Christian?" It hints at the philosophical bent of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal group based here.

The phones are busy in Scottsdale. The first week of December alone brought in 159 calls from around the country for legal advice on everything from protecting creches at city hall to what to do when a school in Wisconsin changes the first line of "Silent Night" to "Cold in the night, no one in sight."

The ADF is not alone. The Rev. Jerry Falwell recently started a "Friend or Foe Christmas campaign," offering the free services of 700 lawyers with the Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Fla., ready to file suit over any holiday infringements.

Earlier this month, the newly formed Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation held a press conference calling on American Jews to defend Christians' right to say "Merry Christmas" and to celebrate openly the birth of Jesus Christ. "Christmas is disappearing," Don Feder, the group's president, says. "It's disappearing from our culture at an alarming rate, disappearing from stores, disappearing from schools and disappearing from the public square."

The ADF says it's been aware of the trend since its founding 12 years ago by 30 Christian organizations. Two Minnesota cases were what drew the attention of Joseph Infranco, the ADF's senior vice president. One involved two girls who were suspended in 1999 from a middle school in Rochester for wearing red-and-green scarves and saying "Merry Christmas" in a school video. The other case involved Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, which in 2001 banned red poinsettias for being a religious symbol. "We looked at each other one day and said, 'It's a sad, sad day in America when you have to retain an attorney to say Merry Christmas,' " Mr. Infranco says.

What's helped the ADF grow from $400,000 in gross revenues in 1993 to $17 million today is its annual "Christmas project," which enlists lawyers around the country to take up cases where Christmas is under attack. But first these lawyers had to be trained. "There's a litigious component to our culture wars," says Jeffery Ventrella, an ADF vice president. "You can't just have a good-hearted lawyer. You have to be a good-hearted, skilled lawyer."

In 1997, the ADF began its "national litigation academies." In weeklong sessions, legal experts coach attorneys on the concepts of religious freedom, parental rights, the First Amendment and equal access. The ADF pays all expenses. According to its 2004 tax return, the group spent $4.8 million training 80 law students and 120 attorneys last year. The 832 lawyers who have attended the academies agree to donate 450 hours, which at $175 an hour clocks out at $65 million worth of pro-bono time.

In 2003, the ADF took on a dozen Christmas-related cases. Officials at the organization said they were amazed to see that, in many cases, all that was needed was a "demand letter" to school or municipal officials. "Half the battle is showing up," Mr. Ventrella says. "You have to saddle up and show up or you lose. We're winning 75 percent of the cases we're showing up at. And if you set a precedent, it's the gift that keeps on giving."

In 2004, the ADF sent more than 6,700 letters to school districts and cities, informing local officials that the U.S. Constitution does not forbid public celebrations of Christmas. Christmas carols may be sung in school; it's constitutional to refer to the December break as a "Christmas holiday"; the right of teachers and students to say "Merry Christmas" is protected by the First Amendment. The ADF also assures local officials that the religious origins of Christmas may be studied in school and that students may express religious viewpoints in clothing, reading materials and school assignments.

Other advice: Schools may display religious symbols if there's an educational reason for doing so. Cities may sponsor religious displays on public property if there is a secular purpose, such as celebrating a holiday or depicting its origins. "When you take a creche out of a public square that's been there 80 [to] 90 years, you send the message there's something wrong with that display," Mr. Infranco says. "And by removing that display, you change the culture. For instance, how many public school districts still call the Christmas holiday its 'Christmas break?' Almost nowhere."

Reaction to the ADF was swift, he adds. "It was amazing the extent of hostility by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who were the tail wagging the dog," he says. "We knew that 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, and they were being held hostage by these extremist groups."

Americans United spokesman Rob Boston calls the ADF "a powerful group." "I think the ADF is interested in moving this country toward an officially Christian state by knocking down the wall of separation between church and state," he says. Within nearly 17,000 school districts in the United States, "a handful of incidents a year does now show a systemwide bias against Christianity," he says. "It does show some people in the school system do not understand the law."

This year, the ADF sent out letters to more than 10,000 school districts and hundreds of cities across the country, warning them to not curtail legal Christmas observances. Its Web site,, posts legal victories to date. "We hope citizens will take the holiday back," Mr. Infranco says. "They can go to city hall and say, 'We had a creche here five years ago. What happened to it? We want it back.' "



Panic: 'MP calls for ban on artificial sweetener', reports the Guardian on fears related to the sweetener aspartame, more widely known as NutraSweet. Liberal Democrat MP Roger Williams, a member of the parliamentary select committee on food and the environment, said in a Commons debate that there was 'compelling and reliable evidence for this carcinogenic substance to be banned from the UK food and drinks market altogether'. Williams referred in particular to a study announced earlier this year from the European Ramazzini Foundation, which found statistically significant increases in leukaemia and lymphomas in rats fed a diet with the sweetener added.

Don't panic: While there have been long-standing suggestions that aspartame is carcinogenic, the sweetener has been the subject of numerous reviews that have drawn the conclusion that it is not a health risk.

On the face of it, aspartame seems an unlikely cause of cancer. As it is digested, the sweetener is broken down into simpler by-products, two amino acids plus methanol, which are already found in the diet in other foods. If aspartame is carcinogenic, then so are many normal foods. For example, tomato juice contains six times as much methanol as the equivalent volume of aspartame-sweetened soft drink. The quantities of aspartame consumed on average, about 2-3mg per kilogram of body weight per day, are well below the 40 mg/kg per day specified as safe by the European Union (EU).

The European Ramazzini Foundation study does suggest that aspartame is a health risk. Rats bred to spontaneously develop cancers developed more cancers while consuming aspartame than those that did not. For example, rats given the equivalent of 100 times the safe dose of aspartame were roughly twice as likely to develop lymphomas and leukaemias as those given no aspartame. There were also effects seen at lower doses.

However, such a study on a rather peculiar breed of animal cannot be a reliable guide to the effect of aspartame on humans. In passing, it is worth noting that there have been suggestions in the past that aspartame could increase the risk of brain tumours - but no significant increased risk of brain tumours was found in this study.

Before these results were widely publicised, it would have been better for them to be reviewed in the light of previous research, especially human epidemological studies, to make a balanced assessment of risk. Given the ubiquity of aspartame in all sorts of foods, any significant increased risk of cancer in humans would surely have shown up by now. One of the largest manufacturers of aspartame, Ajinomoto, has criticised the Ramazzini study as 'not consistent with the extensive body of scientific research which already exists on aspartame'.

The irony is that this is another example of competing panics. Aspartame has become popular at a time when many people are trying to lose weight, often for health reasons inspired by the hysteria around obesity. On the other hand, it is now suggested that aspartame may be carcinogenic. So, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. Sweet.


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