Christmas wars come to University of Tennessee: Hey! Check these crucial facts!

What we have here is a collision between several different kinds of stories that are all hot, right now, in the mainstream press. It's also important to know that this crash is taking place in one of the most intensely religious parts of the United States -- right here in my own stomping grounds of East Tennessee.

First of all, there is the whole "war on Christmas" element of this story, since it centers on a clash between acceptable "holiday parties" and unacceptable "Christmas parties."

Then you have another episode in the current national wave of "trigger warning" controversies on public-university campuses, with the assumption that some forms of speech and symbolism -- take Santa Claus, for example -- are automatically offensive and should be strictly controlled.

However, at the heart of the story is a serious church-state issue linked to the idea of religious believers having "equal access" to space in the tax-dollar-supported public square. Hold that thought.

Oh, right, this story also comes on the heels of a controversy about the University of Tennessee embracing gender-neutral pronouns. Just about the only thing missing from this drama is some hook linked to NASCAR or UT Volunteers football.

So here is where things started off, with a post on the website of the campus Office for Diversity and Inclusion called “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace." It didn't take long -- hello Fox News -- for this to grow into Republican calls for the resignation of UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheeks.

Pretty soon, folks on both sides are calling each other "extremist" and "ridiculous." Here's a sample from the memo that includes the key points:

* Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise. ...
* Supervisors and managers should not endorse, or be perceived as endorsing, religion generally or a specific religion. ...
* If sending holiday cards to campus and community partners, send a non-denominational card or token of your gratitude.
* Holiday parties and celebrations should not play games with religious and cultural themes–for example, “Dreidel” or “Secret Santa.” If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange.

So, multicultural "holiday" parties -- yes. Explicit Christmas parties -- no.

While these policies were said to be more like guidelines, as opposed to actual rules, some officials were worried that people on campus might be punished it they crossed some kind of green-and-red line and held a real Christmas party. Here's a key chunk of the coverage in The Knoxville News Sentinel (a newspaper where, I should mention, my column has run for nearly 27 years):

“It’s ridiculous actually,” said Rickey Hall, UT vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion. ... "This isn’t unlike what other institutions are doing; just like the former controversy … people raced to make a mockery of what we were doing here and then found out that actually we were kind of in the minority, that most institutions have been doing these things, UT is just catching up.”
He said diversity and inclusion are important to students as they prepare for the workforce, and the post was aimed to prevent the several complaints Hall receives each year from people who are Jewish or Muslim about holiday workplace parties that are actually Christmas parties.
Cheek said UT honors Christmas, but promotes inclusivity of all cultures and religions.
“I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued,” he said in a statement.

Now, that passage raises a key issue. It's going to be crucial to document the complaints of people from other faiths.

That brings us to the crucial point, later in the story. This passage is built on statements by U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan:

... Duncan said the list is offensive, particularly coming from a public institution that gets most of its operating budget from federal student loans and state government appropriations.
“I think this is just terrible,” he said. “The people on the far left who always claim to be tolerant seem to be tolerant of everything except traditional Christianity. … They don’t object to Jewish traditions. They don’t object to Muslim traditions or Hindu or anything else. But then they try to take down crosses or tablets or displays that have the Ten Commandments on them. Or they just seem to go unhinged when there’s anything that even hints at traditional Christianity.”
Duncan, a UT alumnus, said the people he represents “are disgusted by this action, and people at the university should be taken to task for it.
“There would be an uproar if they put out a directive to Muslims saying they couldn’t observe Ramadan or if they put out some directives saying that Jewish students could not hold services for Hanukkah,” the Knoxville Republican said. “They wouldn’t do that. And they shouldn’t do that. And they shouldn’t put out directives objecting to services mentioning the word Christmas or having Christmas parties. That is just going too far.”

Now, that final Duncan quote contains information that simply must be checked out as this story moves forward. Readers need facts.

The big questions: Are members of other religious groups actually holding, at the appropriate times, parties of their own with UT's blessing, using campus facilities? Do these parties receive UT financial support? Are staffers and students punished in any way for organizing or attending these events?

What are the facts about these kinds of events, as opposed to the mere claims of a Republican legislator?

That leads to another set of questions: Would the university's leaders actively discourage groups of Christians from holding actual Christmas parties on campus, using campus facilities? Would these parties receive UT support, in terms of time or money?

So, do we have an actual dispute here about equal access being granted to different religious groups, with their own traditions?

In other words, are there real Christmas parties being held on this giant campus as well as these official, large-scale, generic, vague, Santa-free "holiday" parties that are supposedly safe enough for members of the whole campus community?

True or false: Are campus administrators pushing Christians into the "holiday" bag, but not members of other faiths? True or false: Are members of other faiths holding campus events rooted in their own traditions?

That's the serious story here. At this point, I don't think news consumers -- local or national -- know the answers to these kinds of crucial questions.

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