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Monday, December 05, 2005 | Christmas can be anything but merry for educators at public schools who are criticized from all sides for doing too much, and too little, to recognize the holiday in the classroom.

As battles rage this year over whether secular perspectives have become too dominant a force in society, public schools are on the front lines, where America’s youngest citizens can be made to feel warm and welcome or like uninvited guests in their own country.

At a forum last week sponsored by the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, panelists and audience members were long on questions but short on concrete solutions to divisive issues involving separation of church and state that have plagued school districts for decades. These issues can become particularly contentious in December when a number of religious holidays converge, presenting difficult challenges for beleaguered teachers and school administrators.

Each situation is unique and is best addressed in advance if possible, panelists agreed. They recommended using dialogue, understanding, sensitivity and compromise to diffuse thorny situations before they escalate into polarization and bitter acrimony.

Calling schools a battleground for constitutional issues, attorney Daniel Shinoff, who specializes in education law and is a partner with the San Diego-based law firm of Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, moderated the event, titled “Church-State Issues in our Public Schools: Stories from the Inside.”

The forum’s panelists included Ed Brand, superintendent of the San Marcos Unified School District; Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District; local attorney Richard Barton, former chair of ADL’s San Diego regional board and current national vice chair for ADL’s International Affairs; and Michael Lieberman, ADL’s Washington, D.C. counsel and lobbyist.

“Separation of church and state is complex and is a minefield,” Noonan said. “Religion permeates almost everything that touches us in schools. Schools are places where all of God’s children come together at the same time.”

Noonan, also a member of the state Board of Education, discussed the state’s textbook adoption process and recent testimony by Hindus who objected to a specific history textbook’s portrayal of India. “To these people it was critically important to represent the history of India accurately,” he said.

As tricky as the adoption of history textbooks can be, Noonan predicted that the battle over the state’s science textbook adoption in two years will become even more inflammatory, as proponents of “intelligent design” prepare to argue that this concept should be included in California’s high school science curriculum.

Lieberman agreed that the intelligent design issue will be major and potentially explosive, saying the “overwhelming majority” of Americans are in favor of teaching I.D. in the classroom.

The sparsely attended event, held at the La Jolla Jewish Community Center, attracted about 30 audience members, including school administrators from Warner Springs, Lemon Grove and Vista.

The panelists discussed a number of sensitive scenarios that confront schools. Two of many situations they contemplated:

A Native American student came to school with a pouch around his neck during a period of heightened drug awareness, and a school administrator cut open the pouch to inspect it for drugs.

A Muslim student asked to bring a ceremonial knife to school for several days because the custom was traditional and part of her culture and religion, although her school strictly prohibited weapons of any kind on campus for any reason.

With no pat answers, panelists said they typically approach scenarios on a case-by-case basis, trying to reach compromise and solutions that respect religious customs and cultures without endangering other students or imposing or promoting any particular religion’s values and beliefs.

People tend to be passionate about religion, said Brand, who said he sometimes finds wiggle room and can resolve tricky issues by distinguishing between the rule of law and the spirit of the law.

Brand suggested that viewpoints be presented cordially and in the spirit of cooperation. Shinoff supported this view, saying an ineffective way to promote understanding and neutralize conflict is for one party to say to the other, “I have a lawyer.”

“If there’s a platform the group wants to advocate for, dialogue with the superintendent will usually have positive results,” Brand said, advising against making formal demands. “And if you approach us before (the issue becomes controversial), there’s a 99.9 percent chance you will be satisfied. But if you assume we’re going to deal with it, you’ll probably be disappointed.”

Noonan agreed, saying school administrators much prefer to deal with these issues before they can become problems, not after.

“We need to keep talking to one another,” Barton said, noting that one of the ADL’s primary purposes is to educate the community and calm people down. “Some were making things worse in the way they were approaching the issues.”

December dilemma

It began in the aftermath of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education, when the rights of minorities were taken more seriously as challenges came before the courts, Barton said. This has given rise today to rancorous public debates “polluted with venom and hatred … that are beyond the pale of civilized dialogue,” which make it much more difficult for school district superintendents to do their jobs, he said.

The ADL “cares deeply, madly” about separation of church and state issues, said Lieberman, calling this one of the key pillars of American society. This position is not anti-religion, he said, but rather helps preserve religious freedom. “Every person should be able to practice their religion without government interference,” he said.

Founded in 1913, the ADL’s stated mission is to fight anti-Semitism, racism, bias, discrimination and bigotry, and to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their religions freely. The organization offers free resources for parents and teachers on religion in public schools, available on their Web site.

The ADL maintains that the rights set forth in the First Amendment of the Constitution embody what Thomas Jefferson called the concept of “separation of church and state,” even though there is no direct reference to the popular phrase in the document itself.

Lieberman gave the audience a brief tutorial quiz on what is and is not allowed in public schools, particularly during December’s holiday season when the line between the religious and the secular can often blur. The answers to the quiz revealed that public schools have surprising freedom to study about religion, allow individuals to pray in school, sing patriotic songs that mention God, adorn schools with Christmas decorations, include Christmas songs in holiday programs and allow religious club meetings on campus.

On one level, Lieberman said all these activities are allowed, but on another level the answer is, “It depends.” The specifics of each case may or may not be permitted.

ADL guidelines distinguish between “teaching about religion” as part of a secular educational program and “teaching religion” which endorses one way of thinking over another. The bible, the ADL says, may be studied in schools as literature but not religious doctrine. Religious symbols like crosses, crèches, and menorahs may not be used in the classrooms as seasonal decorations but can be used as teaching aids to instruct about cultures, heritage and holidays important in history, according to the ADL. Teachers may wear religious symbols such as a cross or Star of David necklace but must be careful not to share personal, in-depth religious beliefs with students, the ADL claims.

“We use common sense,” Lieberman said. “We’re a human relations organization. Most problems in public schools are caused by ignorance, not ill will or anti-Semitism.”

December and the festive holiday season can be alienating for religious minorities, commented Lieberman, who said this is not a Christian nation even though 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian.

Saying public schools offer unique opportunities to instruct children in founding principles of justice and equality, Lieberman recommended that parents get to know their children’s teachers and principals early in the school year and establish communication that is civil and respectful. “Relationships are important,” he said.

“I believe public education is the best thing ever invented by humankind,” said Brand, who commented that kindergarten may be the place where children are taught fundamental values that will stay with them throughout their lives: to treat others with respect, value diversity and believe in social justice.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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