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Groups turn profit defending Christmas

LOS ANGELES -- The "War on Christmas" has never been so profitable.

For the fourth year running, conservative Christian groups have spent much of December mobilizing against what they see as a liberal plot to censor Christmas. But this year, it's more than a cause. It's a huge fund-raiser.

The American Family Association, a conservative activist group, has rung up more than $550,000 in sales of buttons and magnets stamped with the slogan "Merry Christmas: It's Worth Saying."

Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm affiliated with the religious right, has taken in more than $300,000 with its "Help Save Christmas Action Packs." The kits include two buttons, two bumper stickers, and "The Memo That Saved Christmas," a guide to defending overt religious expression, such as a nativity scene in a public-school classroom.

Also for sale through conservative websites: Christmas bracelets, tree ornaments and lapel pins intended to send a defiant message to those who would turn December into a multicultural mix of winter parties, seasonal sales, and Happy Holidays greetings.

Christmas warriors can also download -- for free -- lists that rank retailers as either "naughty" or "nice," depending on how often their ads refer to Christmas rather than a generic holiday.

"You're seeing people really wanting to take this battle forward," said Mat Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel, based in Orlando, Fla.

With minimal advertising on Christian radio stations, Liberty Counsel rang up more than 12,000 orders for a glossy copy of the legal memo (which is also available online for free). The minimum donation to get a packet was $25; many supporters kicked in more.

Staver's conclusion: "A lot of people have strong feelings about Christmas."

Apparently so. A Zogby International poll conducted last month found that 46 percent of Americans are offended when a store clerk greets them with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." More than a third of the 12,800 adults surveyed said they have walked out of a store or resolved to avoid it in the future because the clerks didn't show enough Christmas spirit.

"It's the whole peace-on-earth and goodwill-toward-man thing. It lifts us up when people can say 'Merry Christmas' without worrying about whether it's politically correct," said Jennifer Giroux, a Cincinnati entrepreneur. She began marketing rubber bracelets urging "Just Say 'Merry Christmas' " last December; this season, she has sold more than 50,000, at $2 apiece.

She plans to donate her profits to a Christian charity. "It's never been about the money," she said. "It's about the message."

But if the message can make money, so much the better.

Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said he was delighted with the revenue from "War on Christmas" merchandise, which supplemented the ministry's $13 million annual budget. All 500,000 buttons and 125,000 magnets were sold out by early December. "It was very successful for us," Wildmon said.

Liberty Counsel, too, rated the sale a success. "It did help with donations, but more than anything else, it helped with exposure," said spokeswoman Robin Bryant. She said the group has been able to add many new names to its mailing list for future fund drives. "It just ballooned," Bryant said.

In fact, the fund-raising went so well that the religious right plans to branch out. Next up: The war on Easter.

Scouts for the American Family Association, which is based in Tupelo, Miss., will keep a keen eye out for stores that promote "spring baskets" or "spring bonnets" instead of celebrating Christ's resurrection. The group already has laid in a stash of Easter buttons, bearing three gold crosses and the words "He Lives."

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