DENVER — The rule is perfectly clear: While some expressions of faith are welcome, Christian themes are not tolerated in Denver's annual Parade of Lights.

“I feel offended, as an individual and as a Christian,” said the Rev. George Morrison, pastor of Faith Bible Chapel in the Denver suburb of Arvada.

Throughout the country, says American University law professor Daniel Dreisbach, Christians are being told this year that they can't express Christmas traditions in public. An election that showed mainstream support for traditional family values, he said, may have motivated anti-Christian organizations to work even harder toward silencing Christian expression in the public square.

Dreisbach, author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, said there are dozens of such cases. “It's almost always reported as ‘those Christians demanding their religious themes in public,’ when in fact these conflicts are being initiated not by Christians but by people seeking to remove Christian expression from public view.”

Last year, Rev. Morrison attended the Parade of Lights — one of the largest Christmas-season parades in the country — and felt excluded.

“I noticed that as the parade went by, there were no Christmas carols, nothing about the birth of Christ or anything about Christmas at all,” Rev. Morrison said. “There were all of these other winter holidays being celebrated, and many of them seemed overtly religious to me.”

Rev. Morrison thought he could add a small Christmas touch by motivating musicians and artists in his church to prepare an exhibit for the 2004 parade. It would express the Christmas traditions of his diverse 4,000-plus congregation.

“Leaving that parade, I thought the Christian community had simply been remiss in putting together some kind of a parade entry,” Rev. Morrison said. “I had no idea this was active exclusion of Christian content.”

The pastor had his music and out-reach coordinator contact the Denver Downtown Partnership, a non-profit business coalition that organizes the parade, held the first weekend in December.

“We told them we wanted to do something that would involve a small choir, yuletide hymns and Christmas carols,” Rev. Morrison said. “They said No, we couldn't participate, because they don't allow yuletide hymns, Christmas carols, Christmas songs of any kind, and no references to Christmas, such as ‘Merry Christmas’ signs.”

About ‘Diversity’

That's true, says Susan Rogers-Kark, vice president of the Denver Downtown Partnership. She said all Christian-themed applications are automatically disqualified from the parade, which consists of 2,000 participants and attracts hundreds of thousands who line downtown streets.

“It's a holiday parade, not a Christmas parade,” Rogers-Kark said. “We try not to have it representing a religious message, but bringing community together. It's about a season of giving and community.”

Michael Krkorian, spokesman for the Downtown Denver Partnership, told the Rocky Mountain News “We want to avoid that specific religious message out of respect for other religions in the region.”

The parade features elaborate floats, performances by an array of dance schools, marching bands, pageantry and ice skaters on floats. Mostly, Rogers-Kark said, the parade is designed to reflect Denver's racial and ethnic diversity. She explained that musicians and artists from Faith Bible Chapel were excluded for the sake of “inclusion.”

“It's not something where we want to exclude anyone,” Rogers-Kark said. “And I realize this feels like it's excluding someone, but it's about a concern for someone else watching it and not feeling that it's a specific reflection on, perhaps, what their own religion is or what their beliefs are.”

Former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton says that's an outrageous claim.

“How can you be inclusive by being exclusive?” asks Norton, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life nonprofit with 700-plus lawyers ready to defend against attacks on traditional Christian organizations and individuals.

Rev. Morrison said what he saw last year was not a secular celebration but a “parade with a lot of religious content, except for Christianity. When there's a Chinese dance that represents the chasing away of evil spirits, to me that's very religious.”

As well, the Two Spirit Society featured homosexual American Indians as holy people participating in religious ritual and dance.

“People of various cultures will see things that represent part of their cultural traditions and their holiday,” Rogers-Kark said, conceding that religion and culture intertwine.

“Again, we are not accepting those (parade entries) and saying we want to present your religious traditions and not someone else's. What we're saying is, it's more about the ethnic diversity of the community, and that's what we're trying to represent.”

Counters Rev. Morrison: “My congregation is ethnically diverse…. The only problem they have with us is our Christian beliefs.”

Catholic League President William Donohue said discrimination against Christian expression is rampant throughout the country as Christmas approaches.

“In the name of diversity, they crush it,” Donohue says of free speech and religion. “In the name of tolerance, they obliterate it. Which is why we need to call them for what they are — cultural fascists.” Donohue reports that efforts to ban Christmas in Maine's Scarborough school district have become so intense that parents have resorted to calling Christmas the “C-word.”

Back in Denver, the mayor's office planned to remove the “Merry Christmas” sign from the massive multi-holiday display outside the government complex and replace it with “Happy Holidays.” After public outcry, however, the mayor said “Merry Christmas” would remain.

“It's not just Christmas that's being censored; it's all Christian expression,” said law professor Dreisbach, citing efforts to purge county seals, courthouses and war memorials. He said anti-Christian sentiment stems from hysteria about cultural and religious diversity, and a perception that Christianity stands in the way of it.

Though the First Amendment protects freedom of religion and expression, courts have allowed exclusion of some Christmas displays on government property and in public schools. Whether a Christmas display is allowed on public property, Dreisbach explained, involves legal complexities often specific to each individual case.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, he said, may be within its rights to exclude Christian expression from its parade because the organization is private. He said the issue of content discrimination in parades was settled in 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled that organizers of Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade could exclude a homosexual-oriented group. The court said that for the government to force organizers to include content they did not desire would amount to coerced speech, forbidden by the First Amendment.

Still, Rev. Morrison wants to know why homosexual Indians can parade their religion and he can't.

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.