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PolitiFact.com | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

Newt Gingrich says no federal official is allowed to say 'Merry Christmas'

Newt Gingrich says the nation's obsession with being politically correct has come to this: Federal officials aren't allowed to say "Merry Christmas."

On the campaign trail, Gingrich has offered strong criticism of efforts to keep religion out of public places and said he would hold judges to account if they rule in favor of stricter separation between church and state. The topic came up this week in Iowa.

"This is actually weird … I've been investigating this for the last three days," Gingrich said. "I am told that this is actually a 20- or 30-year-old law, which I have to say I find strange, and I would advocate repealing the law. Apparently if the president sends out Christmas cards, they are paid for the Democratic or Republican National Committees because no federal official at any level is currently allowed to say 'Merry Christmas.' And the idea, I think, is that the government should be neutral. … I'm going to go back and find out how was this law written, when was it passed."

A PolitiFact reader brought this to our attention, so we decided to look into whether Gingrich is right that "no federal official at any level is currently allowed to say 'Merry Christmas.' "

To explore this, we examined federal rules, spoke with unions that represent government workers and interviewed lawyers with expertise in federal rules.

The upshot: It's perfectly acceptable to say "Merry Christmas!" (Or "Happy Hanukkah!")

We started with "Memorandum on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace," issued Aug. 14, 1997, by President Bill Clinton. We found the rule was respectful of employees' rights to express their religious preference and offered nothing as sweeping as Gingrich claimed.

Indeed, the more detailed rules affiliated with this memorandum suggest quite the opposite. Among the theoretical examples provided is this one: "At Christmas time, a supervisor places a wreath over the entrance to the office's main reception area. This course of conduct is permitted."

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in church-state issues, told us Gingrich is off base. "There is no such law anywhere in the United States Code," he said. "There is no such regulation of sufficient status to appear in the Code of Federal Regulations. I am certain of these two facts, because they are both computer-searchable. … It is hard to imagine a rule that applies to every 'federal official at any level' not appearing in the Code of Federal Regulations."

We also checked with the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union for federal workers. A spokeswoman said she checked with the union's legal staff and they confirmed the view that federal workers are allowed to say "Merry Christmas."

So where did Gingrich's falsehood come from? The Gingrich campaign hasn't been responding to our inquiries, but it appears to be rooted in two things — the White House tradition of using political parties to pay for the White House Christmas card, and the rules for congressional postage.

On White House Christmas cards, Gingrich has a point. The White House has long avoided the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for the Christmas cards it sends out, said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian who has written about the issue. Instead, political party committees foot the bill.

But this appears to be a longstanding custom that began decades ago out of an abundance of caution, not because federal law bans the practice outright. The legal concerns that prompted the initial decision may have involved "the separation of church and state, as well as concerns that the holiday cards would be viewed as political in nature, possibly implicating laws against the use of federal funds for campaign purposes," said Robert K. Kelner, a lawyer who specializes in political and election law at the firm Covington & Burling.

We checked transcripts of speeches by federal officials and quickly found plenty of examples of Christmas wishes, including from President Barack Obama this year.

Gingrich's more sweeping claim fits into the annual complaint by Fox News commentators and other conservatives that there is a "war on Christmas." This year, a column in the conservative Washington Examiner said the U.S. House of Representatives has banned "wishing constituents a 'Merry Christmas' if they want to do so in a mailing paid for with tax dollars."

The House does, in fact, prohibit taxpayer-funded "birthday, anniversary, wedding, birth, retirement or condolence messages" as well as "holiday greetings."

Senate guidelines are broadly similar.

But that's not a war on Christmas. It's more like a war on … greeting cards.

Here's the kicker: The House regulations that sparked Gingrich's outrage are dated June 1998, when the House speaker was … Newt Gingrich.

Our rating

While it's true that the intersection of religion, the workplace and the federal government is legally tricky due to issues surrounding the separation of church and state, it is ridiculously false to say that "no federal official at any level is currently allowed to say 'Merry Christmas.' "

Throw a pair of britches on the yule log. Pants on Fire!

This ruling has been edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

Newt Gingrich says no federal official is allowed to say 'Merry Christmas' 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 9:23pm]
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