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ACLU lawyer defends religious freedoms, denies ‘war on Christmas’

As holiday cheer fills the city, greetings of “Happy Holidays” should be used instead of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” to avoid imposing religious beliefs on others, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU spokeswoman Sarah Wunsch spent last night in the Boston University College of Arts and Sciences explaining to a handful of students why the ACLU supports this freedom of religion, especially during the holidays.

“This time of year, we get two things,” Wunsch said. “People call to complain about [nativity scenes] on their town lawns, and people send us Christmas cards saying how awful we are for waging a war on Christmas.”

Wunsch said the supposed “war on Christmas” is one of the many ways ACLU is misrepresented and incorrectly assumed to be an anti-free speech establishment, instead of a freedom of choice group.

The ACLU works to keep the government out of religious affairs and defends citizens’ rights to exercise their religions freely as long as their practices do not interfere with others, Wunsch said.

“We have one consistent position: The government should not have a say in religion,” Wunsch said. “[The ACLU] will defend your right to have a religious display on private property or public property — that is a public forum of expression.”

Wunsch said the ACLU even supports large displays of religion, such as enormous “Santazillas” — Godzilla-sized inflatable statues of Santa Claus found on private lawns.

Religious differences are made worse by religious fanatics, said School of Theology interim dean Ray Hart.

“No one should be discriminated against because of his religious views,” he said in an email. “Religious tolerance can only be protected by nation-states that have constitutional separation between the state and religions.”

BU ACLU President Ryan Menezes said the organization’s efforts extend far beyond religious freedoms to all civil rights, even to the extreme.

“Some people think the ACLU says that Nazis should have the right to march,” Menezes said. “Well, we do.”

Wunsch’s lecture, which followed a screening of the ACLU video The Freedom Files: Religious Freedom took on Menezes’s wider goals and stressed the importance of college students understanding civil rights.

Wunsch said she hopes by helping youth “stick their necks out,” she will “encourage people to stand up for what’s right,” because otherwise civil rights will disappear.

“This is a critical time for people to know what’s going on and do something about it,” she said.

BU ACLU member James Sappenfield said student involvement on many campuses has been low, prompting ACLU Boston groups to join efforts, as they did for yesterday’s lecture.

“We’re trying to unite different ACLU groups to help raise awareness . . . and increase cooperation between different groups and get more participation,” said Sappenfield, a CAS sophomore.

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