Last month we once again awarded, for lack of a better word, the recipient of the Becket Fund's annual Ebenezer Award.

The Ebenezer, you may recall, is each year bestowed upon the perpetrators of the silliest affront to Christmas or Hanukkah. Named after the Dickens character, Scrooge, the award itself is a specially designed Christmas stocking filled with lumps of coal. It is delivered along with a certificate most unsuitable for framing.

The 2001 awardee richly deserved its Ebenezer. Its “accomplishment": banning Santa Claus from the town's holiday celebrations. Yes, the competition was tight, but in the end it was the Kensington, Md., town council that walked away with the December dishonors.

Traditionally, Santa arrived in Kensington on a fire truck and helped the mayor light the town Christmas tree. This year, however, two families said Santa is a religious symbol and that, as such, his presence would make them feel “uncomfortable.” Never mind that various federal courts have held it is the very presence of Santa Claus as a secular symbol that makes the presence of religious symbols such as a Nativity scene permissible. The town council disinvited Santa anyway.

Then, when the move drew an avalanche of angry phone calls and e-mails, they behaved like typical bureaucrats and changed Santa's status from “disinvited” to “uninvited” — as if that would please anyone.

Dishonorable mention went to the City of St. Paul. There, officials banned red poinsettias from their holiday presentation, saying there had been complaints that the plants were a Christian symbol. Never mind, once again, that courts often note that the presence of poinsettias as a secular symbol makes possible the inclusion of other, religious ones. The county bureaucrats yanked the poinsettias anyway.

There is a very serious point in all this nonsense. Kensington and St. Paul are perfect illustrations of a common misunderstanding of religious liberty. Each transformed the right of religious freedom from a freedom to search for God and to live and express one's faith, into a freedom not to see and not to hear anything that worsens one's angst. For them, having faith is like smoking. It's a dangerous habit. Consenting adults can believe in private, but believing in public is a bad thing to do. The bureaucrats think it's the government's job to protect you from other people's religious belief every bit as much as it's the govern-ment's job to protect you from other people's cigarette smoke.

They are, of course, wrong. There is no discomfort clause in the Constitution, no legal right to ban Santa or a poinsettia or anything else simply because it makes you feel bad. There is an Establishment Clause, which quite properly prevents the government from proclaiming an official religion. But the courts and common sense are unanimous that simply celebrating Christmas is a far cry from proclaiming an official religion

So the bureaucrats in Kensington and St. Paul have it wrong: Santas and poinsettias are not unconstitutional religious symbols. But the federal courts that think so-called secular symbols are necessary to sanitize religious ones like Nativity scenes and menorahs get it wrong, too.

First of all, Santa Claus, who started life as St. Nicholas, and poinsettias, which became Christmas flowers because of a Mexican legend that they were once given as gifts to the Christ Child, really aren't entirely secular. In fact, it is very difficult to find a truly secular symbol of Christmas. Candy canes began as symbolic representations of the shepherd's crooks, holly wreaths were woven to prefigure the Christ Child's eventual crown of thorns and the star on the tree is, of course, the Star of Bethlehem. So, whether such symbols are secular or not depends on who's looking at them.

Second, and more importantly, there is no reason they have to be wholly secular. The government celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah as normal parts of our culture, just as it celebrates St. Patrick's Day and Martin Luther King's birthday. Nobody imagines that King's birthday is an unconstitutional racial preference, or St. Patrick's Day an ethnic one. We don't entertain lawsuits by anglophiles seeking to enjoin parades on March 17, or by klansmen trying to block events on January 18.

The reason is simple. The government celebrates everything from National Catfish Day to National Jukebox Week. (No, I'm not making that up.) Given the wide variety of government events throughout the year, no one could seriously think that a St. Patrick's Day parade was an evil plot to establish Irish supremacy.

The same is true for Christmas and Hannukah. They are religious holidays that naturally feature religious symbols. When the government celebrates them, it shouldn't have to bend over backwards to pretend otherwise. It is everything else that the government celebrates throughout the year that puts a Nativity scene or menorah — or even a Santa — in context, not the secular or religious nature of the foliage that accompanies it.

It will be interesting to see what the anti-religion contingents cook up to contend for the next Ebenezer Award. That is to say: Let the 2002 competition begin. And may the worst group win.

Kevin J. Hasson is president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. (http://www.becketfund.org)