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Banner stirs Christmas controversy

One Tampa church says in a banner that it's tired of the secularization of Christmas, but others find the sign offensive.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published December 10, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
A banner at Without Walls Church, 2511 N Grady Ave., shows the church's displeasure with businesses that use a general holiday salutation. The pastor says there is an "attack on Christianity and some of our Christian values."

Happy Greetings
Which holiday greeting do you use
Merry Christmas
Seasons Greetings
Happy Holidays

TAMPA - A huge banner hangs across the outside of Without Walls International megachurch. Its message is less than merry:

To HELL with the word holiday. Put CHRIST back into "Christ"mas.

It urges passers-by to boycott stores that say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" in their advertising.

"Here's the way that I see it," said Randy White, the nondenominational church's founder and pastor. "Everyone in America is entitled to their beliefs and certainly their holidays. The Muslims have their holidays. The Hindus have their holidays. The Jews have their holidays. And none of those have come under attack.

"We're in a place in our society where we're so politically correct and don't want to offend anyone, but we've offended the majority of Americans, who are Christian."

White said the idea for the banner came at a staff meeting to plan services for Christmas Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. A staff member for the 23,000-member church mentioned that some local churches were considering closing, not having services on Christmas Day, because it is a holiday.

The discussion snowballed from there, White said. He researched the trend of using "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and came to one conclusion: "There is an out-and-out attack on Christianity and some of our Christian values."

A link on the church's Web site, http://www.withoutwalls.org points to a boycott campaign promoted by the American Family Association against stores that use "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to encompass all of the holidays of the season.

"Instead of inclusive, the retailers are being exclusive by not recognizing which holidays they're trying to get us to buy their products for," said Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss.

But he doesn't agree with White's banner. "It's really inappropriate," Sharp said. "That certainly isn't indicative of the best Christian attitude on how to address the concerns."

White doesn't believe draping the word "Hell" across a church is irreverent.

"It is a bold sign," he said. "Just to say the word hell, it gets people's attention. That was our purpose, and it's done a great job doing that."

Pastor Bob Burridge of Grace Presbyterian Church in Pinellas Park thinks the sign is counterproductive.

"I find it to be offensive," Burridge said. "Certainly, I am in favor of Christ-centered celebration, because I'm a Christian. I wouldn't impose that on those who are not Christians or it would be hypocritical."

White said he wouldn't be opposed to businesses marketing to each specific holiday, and added that he has received numerous phone calls from Jews and Muslims supporting the banner's rejection of the secularization of the religious holiday.

Rabbi Richard Birnholz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek of Tampa isn't one of them.

"What I don't like is the tone of the banner," he said, "which somehow suggests that there's an evil movement afoot to remove Christmas from our society, because I think that it casts blame where none is justified. Our society is made up of many different groups and religious people, and minority faiths need to be protected as much as majority faiths."

He says he doesn't have a problem with people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Happy Chanukah," and says that when Christians wish him a "Merry Christmas," that doesn't offend him either.

"I think it's fine for stores and everyone to wish people a Merry Christmas, because it's the Christmas season," Birnholz said. "However, I think that in order to be inclusive, that it's important to also recognize other holidays that fall at this time of year."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or at azayas@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 10, 2005, 00:50:10]


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