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A push to spread the gospel about the 2010 Census this Christmas is stoking controversy with a campaign that links the government count to events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

The National Association of Latino Elected Officials is leading the distribution to churches and clergy of thousands of posters that depict the arrival of Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. As chronicled in the Gospel of Luke, Joseph returned to be counted in a Roman census, but he and Mary found no room at an inn, and Jesus was born in a manger.

“This is how Jesus was born,” the poster states. “Joseph and Mary participated in the Census.”

Most of the posters are in Spanish and target Latino evangelicals, says Jose Cruz, senior director of civic engagement at the Latino association, which launched its Ya Es Hora (It’s Time) campaign in 2006 to promote voter registration among Latinos.

It is promoting the Census, used to help allocate $400 billion a year in federal dollars, redraw state and local political districts and determine the number of seats each state gets in Congress.

“Our challenge is a full Latino count,” says Cruz, who designed the poster. For people who fear government — especially those here illegally — the plea to fill out the Census has to come from someone they trust, he says. “There is no more trusted voice in our community than faith-based leaders.”

The campaign may counter efforts by one Latino evangelical group to get Hispanics to boycott the Census unless Congress changes immigration laws.

The Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, says invoking the name of Jesus to promote the 2010 Census is “blasphemous” and “violates the concept of separation of church and state.” Using the name of Jesus for “a political and secular intention, it is definitely an assault against our Christian faith,” Rivera says.

Government did not pay or play a role in creating the posters, says Nick Kimball, spokesman at the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau. “We work with people from all walks of life to get an accurate count but do not provide funding,” he says. Most mainstream Latino groups do not support a Census boycott.

Tying the Census to the Christmas story strengthens the message, Cruz says, because “Mary and Joseph, who were both God-fearing, decided they needed to participate.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is translating the posters in English, Korean, Creole and Vietnamese, says Corrine Yu, senior counsel. “I’m not aware of any reticence.”

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