"Merry Christmas. Attorney General's office. Can I help you?" said the receptionist on the other end of the line.
While UTW was calling to speak to Attorney General Drew Edmondson, or at least a spokesperson higher up the chain, the most important nugget of information came from those first two words.
Of course, the simple words "Merry Christmas" wouldn't normally be so crucial in a call to the AG's office, but in this case, they told almost the entire story.
Apparently, according to a certain self-proclaimed sentinel of free expression, Edmondson has recently been acting as a commanding general in the so-called "War on Christmas" of recent years, advising that use of the word "Christmas" by state employees is illegal.
A few days before The Holiday That (allegedly) Must Not Be Named, Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a non-profit Christian advocacy group, issued a statement criticizing Edmondson for his responsibility in an effective ban on Christmas on a university campus in Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Staver is also dean of the Liberty University School of Law, which was founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
"Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) has issued a disturbing policy which requires all employees to refrain from using the word 'Christmas' in oral or written form," said Staver.
"This directive was given by the university upon legal advice of the Oklahoma Attorney General, W.A. Drew Edmondson," he continued.
He went on to detail how the school's human resources director went department-to-department, instructing faculty and employees that any decorations with the word "Christmas" were to be immediately removed, and the word was not to be spoken on the job, especially not in exchanges of "Merry Christmas," even if initiated by non-employees.
"The directive does not include any other legal holidays such as Thanksgiving or New Year's," Staver said.
"The First Amendment prohibits government from being hostile to religion. Selecting one legal holiday for negative treatment and special restrictions solely because it has religious aspects clearly demonstrates hostility toward religion," he also said.
But, according to every other concerned party, the scenario depicted by Staver is an almost complete work of fiction.
The AG office's festive receptionist transferred UTW to Edmondson's spokesman Charlie Price, who said, "We're not waging war on Christmas. We actually quite enjoy it."
He said the AG gave no legal advice or opinion, formal or informal, to representatives at SWOSU.
Brian Adler, spokesman for the university, concurred.
"We wouldn't have gone to them. We have our own attorneys," he said.
As for the ban itself, there isn't and wasn't one, according to him and other SWOSU representatives.
"We're in a conservative state. We're not going to tell anybody 'You can't say Merry Christmas,'" Adler said.
"People can decorate and say 'Merry Christmas' all they want," he added.
While there wasn't an outright "ban" on the holiday or its mention, Adler said university employees were told to refrain from including "Merry Christmas" in e-mail tag lines, which are only to include an employee's name, title and contact information.
Adler insisted that whatever "ban" SWOSU imposed on Christmas was confined to e-mail signatures, but not from e-mails themselves, nor from any other means of expression.
He said the policy was implemented for the purpose of ensuring that the "Merry Christmas" greeting wasn't mistaken by recipients as a sentiment officially expressed by the university, rather than from the individual sender, to the exclusion of other holidays or of well-wishing for students and university affiliates of other faiths.
The Liberty Counsel honcho is sticking to his guns, though. He dismissed the AG receptionist's greeting and Adler's explanation as nothing more than damage control in the face of the criticism he engendered after alerting the media.
"They've gotten a lot of calls, so they've changed their position," Staver told UTW upon learning of the AG receptionists' first words.
"A lot of calls" indeed.
Price said the AG's office received hundreds of calls in the few days after Staver's release.
None, however, from the "Culture Warrior" himself, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who has arguably been the most outspoken in recent years about the purported "War on Christmas" by "secular progressives."
Along with the multitudes of angry telephone calls, the Internet was also abuzz with blog-talk about the purported Grinch General's rumored affront.
As the controversy descended upon the university and he and others were inundated with calls and e-mails, SWOSU President John Hays issued a statement in which he said, "An attempt to be respectful of the diverse religious population at Southwestern Oklahoma State University has been misinterpreted as an attempt to ban Christmas on the Weatherford campus. The rumor of this ban is not true."
He continued, "The University attempted to prevent the appearance as a state agency of endorsing any particular religion."
As Staver explained, it all started on the Wednesday before Christmas when Liberty Counsel received a call from Weatherford City Councilor Warren Goldman, who told them of SWOSU banning Christmas on Edmondson's advice.
The Liberty Counsel front man told UTW that he's never had any direct information about the AG office's responsibility for the policy, but said he spoke with the SWOSU Provost, Dr. Blake Sonove, who confirmed to him that the policy was in place and that it was implemented upon advice from Edmondson.
He also said Admissions Coordinator Connie Phillips, Human Resources Director David Misak and Vice President of Finance Tom Fagen each confirmed the same.
Staver provided contact information for each but, whether it was due to the holiday... *ahem* Christmas break or purely for damage control-related reasons, none returned UTW's telephone calls.
The Weatherford councilman who first apprised Staver of the "ban" did, though.
Goldman told UTW that he had been contacted by a university employee who said he'd been instructed to take the "C" word out of a decoration, which prompted the councilor to start his own investigation.
"I was going on second and third-hand information sometimes," he acknowledged, though, as he drew his conclusions.
"I don't think we have any mean, evil people at the university--just some people with some misconceptions about what the law said," Goldman added.
He also took responsibility for Edmondson's name being inaccurately attached to the "ban."
"That probably was my fault," he said.
"In my conversation with Dr. Sonove, I told him, 'Your attorney isn't the one who's going to foot the bill for these lawsuits,'" Goldman explained.
"I don't remember exactly how the conversation went," he continued, explaining that when Sonove mentioned something about the state Attorney General ultimately being responsible to defend against potential litigation against the state university, Goldman left with the impression that Edmondson had been the source of the bum legal advice.
"That was a misperception on my part," said Goldman.
Apparently, Staver had better luck getting in touch with university officials after UTW's conversation with the free expression advocate.
Hays later issued another statement in which he reported having "had a pleasant discussion with Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel."
As the news reports persisted in publicizing SWOSU's apparently non-existent ban, Hays said he made his own inquiries "to discover if there was any basis to the reports."
Eventually, he found out, "some supervisors or department leaders within the university who meant well may have suggested to employees that caution should be taken with respect to Christmas decorations. One thing led to another and the result was that some mistakenly assumed that Christmas decorations were being prohibited," he said.
Hays clarified the university's position as following the "general principles set forth by the courts" regarding displays of religious symbols.
In publicly-frequented areas, he said, religious displays, such as nativity scenes, are permissible so long as they're displayed in the context of secular symbols, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees. Displays in cubicles, on the other hand, can be as religion-packed as individual employees want.
And, of course, exchanges of "Merry Christmas" are fair game.
"The decision is up to each employee," said Hays.
But, now that the dust is settled and free religious expression has triumphed, the state Attorney General's name is still peppered throughout the Internet ether with a virtual "Grinch" sign around his neck.
"Some folks just don't worry too much about the facts," commented Price, the AG's spokesman, about his inclusion in Staver's criticisms.
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