Dodgeville strikes back.
Dodgeville district firing back over Christmas controversy
GEORGE HESSELBERG email@example.com
January 25, 2006
The Dodgeville School District, accused in December of launching an "attack on Christmas," has counterattacked the accusers.
In a sharply worded letter from its lawyer, the district this week demanded a widely distributed apology, a retraction of claims the school's policies are "hostile" to the U.S. Constitution, and $23,899.48 in damages from the Liberty Counsel. The Florida-based group grabbed national publicity and solicited donations based on its charge that a Dodgeville elementary school had "decided to eliminate Christmas from the Christmas season."
The district and media debunked the charge and the program went on, holiday-appropriate music and all, but under strict security.
The group threatened lawsuits and ignored the truth even after the school posted on its Web site an explanation of its program, the district charged in a letter to Liberty Counsel.
"Your dissemination of false and misleading information and your threats of specious and frivolous litigation resulted in enormous cost to the district. You have yet to present the facts either through a press release, one of your 'alerts' or through any other means. You used this red herring to attempt to collect money through the form of donations," the district's lawyer, Eileen A. Brownlee, wrote in a letter to Mathew D. Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel.
The letter chronologically details contacts with the group, which had named the district's Ridgeway Elementary School winter program as its "exhibit A" in the "war on Christmas."
Staver on Wednesday called the district's requests "ridiculous," and said if the district had simply contacted Liberty Counsel directly after its first letter, the entire affair might have been cleared up immediately.
But Diane Messer, Dodgeville superintendent, said the group never asked for a reply or for an explanation in its first letter, never checked its facts and even got its final statement wrong, when it issued a press release incorrectly claiming the school "dumps" a song, "Cold in the Night," and "returns" to "Silent Night."
Contrary to Liberty Counsel's information in a string of press releases, "From the beginning," wrote Messer to the group Dec. 13, "the program has included the singing of religious songs with their original lyrics. Yes, 'Silent Night' will be sung. 'Cold in the Night' will not be sung." Instead, that song was narrated.
Messer, in an interview Wednesday, said Liberty Counsel exploited incorrect information for a publicity advantage, disregarding the truth.
In one press release, Staver said the school district "intentionally mocks Christian Christmas songs."
Comments like this were "what in part incensed our district and our School Board," said Messer.
"We answered his question, he chose to frame it differently, focusing on 'Silent Night.' As a result, that is where he made his errors. That and . . . not verifying the facts of the matter.
"I am surprised that he has chosen this approach, since he is representing a Christian organization that certainly would uphold the Ten Commandments. He is not honoring the commandment that thou shalt not bear false witness."
Staver was unapologetic.
"I wish they would have called" in response to his first letter, Staver said.
"Hindsight is 20/20. I wish they would have let us know about their press release on their Web site. Communication would have been very helpful. That is why we sent the first letter," he said.
Messer provided a copy of the letter from Liberty Counsel as evidence, that the letter did not request a reply, information or explanation. It did say, "Please contact us if we can assist you in changing current practices or policies in the district."
Staver continued to claim that "Messer and the rest of the school should have or could have and were requested to call us to resolve any alleged misunderstandings that they say there might have been, but they did not do it."
The group describes itself as a "national public interest law firm specializing in constitutional law, particularly free speech, religious freedom and church-state matters." The group, registered in Wisconsin as a tax-exempt charitable organization, is also active in legal battles against gay marriage and abortion.
The story was bandied about by national and local columnists and on a national conservative television show. After an initial round of exposure based on the Liberty Counsel release and resultant barrage of e-mails and calls to the school, the media reported the headline-grabbing accusation, that a hallowed Christmas carol had been "secularized" by the Dodgeville School District, was false.
Staver blamed the district for the confusion.
"They never clarified any (issue) until we were well into this matter, and now they say they have incurred costs. They ought to be glad they didn't incur a lawsuit," said Staver.
"It is ridiculous they even think we would pay a bill."
The bill, described by Messer as " compensation for damages on behalf of our taxpayers," includes $20,376.43 in compensation costs for 469.5 hours put in by district staff, $2,539.65 for law enforcement, $407.40 for buses and $576 for lawyer fees.
Though the Liberty Counsel said in its first letter it had been contacted by "concerned parents" in the Dodgeville School District, and in another letter it had been contacted by "additional parents" in the district, Messer said no parents complained directly to the district.
Staver said his group's broad concern was the school policy on "ceremonies and observations, religious holidays," which he said was "problematic."
The policy in part says that materials and activities cannot "promote religion," and plays cannot be used to "convey religious messages."
"Plainly," the group accused, "someone misunderstood the policy to mean that 'Silent Night' could not be sung because it conveys a religious message."
There was no decision to not sing 'Silent Night,' school officials said.
Messer said the district's policy, and winter program, will not change.
"There was not one thing wrong or inappropriate or against our policy or against the constitution in our winter program. Why would we change?"
Does she think the Liberty Counsel will send the district a check or an apology?
"I would like to believe that given their Christian basis, that somebody there would realize that right is right. And since they used their actions as part of their fundraising campaign, certainly something should be forthcoming. If nothing more than a token of compensation for what they unfairly subjected us to."
She said that she hopes "next year, if this group continues to wage their 'War on Christmas' publicity campaign, they will research first to understand the facts of whatever the issues are at the next location. This might prevent someone else from becoming a victim of their bullying tactics."