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Tuesday, December 13, 2005 | It’s a seasonal thing, how the temperature rises this time of year. Not outside where it’s chilly, but internally, as patience boils over and tempers flare over public displays of Christmas.
From Winter Walks to Holiday Parades and December Nights, the high-pitched battle for what to call festivals, displays, choral performances, pageants and trees has become so polarized that the nasty bickering and scornful name-calling threaten to darken the good will of the season. And the rancor over how to name these activities is just the tinsel, the wrapping on the package.
At its heart, the debate is about society’s acceptance of religious customs and celebrations in our communities and public places. This conflict over how best to show respect for religious traditions without violating constitutional principles can make December a time of suspicion and short fuses, rather than a month of high spirits, charity and kindness.
Nowhere is the battle more vigorously fought than in the public schools, where principals and administrators walk a fine line between those who expect more – and those who want less – observance of the Christmas holiday. This balancing act often leaves frustrated educators satisfying no one while trying to accommodate everyone, creating situations that can quickly degenerate into resentment and discord.
At a recent forum sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the divisive issue was approached so sensibly that it was a shame more people weren’t able to attend. Those who came saw common sense rule the day. They heard voices of reason and calm, something sorely lacking this particular season.
Two school district superintendents – Ed Brand of San Marcos and Ken Noonan of Oceanside – called the separation of church and state one of the most challenging issues they confront, and both expressed with deep sincerity how they genuinely struggle each year to satisfy everyone’s religious views within their districts’ legal parameters.
Brand and Noonan are not alone. Nearly all superintendents do their best to protect individual liberty and honor the First Amendment without trampling on either the rights of religious minorities or the rights of the Christian majority – a task of enormous difficulty in today’s not-so-civil society.
Most situations are not black-and-white, and the job of educators is to see the gray, identify the common ground and strike compromise when possible. The job of parents and students, for their part, is to approach school officials with patience and courtesy, try to head off problems before they escalate, understand the other point of view and avoid accusatory tones and self-righteous posturing.
Few topics are more fascinating than the question of religion in the public schools, precisely because of its complicated challenges to our democracy’s basic constitutional principles. Many cases are unique and without precedent, and, through civil discourse and a healthy exchange of ideas, force us to struggle with ingrained beliefs.
Just as a teenager’s job is to push limits and test boundaries, so is a democratic society’s. And in such a free society we can expect someone to challenge, for example, the legality of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance words “under God” in public schools. These challenges may make you crazy, angry or impatient – but they will make you think.
And with thinking, discussing and debating comes, hopefully, greater sensitivity and clarity on such matters.
When a high school student wears a T-shirt to school with an anti-homosexuality message emblazoned on it, saying that is his religious belief and the First Amendment guarantees his right to free speech, we have to accept his earnestness and sincerity. The behavior may not be suitable or even legal, but the challenge is valid, and we ultimately benefit when we explore the issue and sort out the legitimacy of each side’s claims through rational dialogue.
When a high school valedictorian makes a speech to her graduating class that repeatedly invokes the name of Jesus, school administrators try to understand how that will make non-Christian students feel. Does her right as valedictorian supersede the rights of other students who are part of a captive audience at a public school graduation? Does she have more right to refer to Jesus in her speech because she is a member of the Christian majority than, say, a Muslim valedictorian might have who thanks Allah in the same manner?
If we allow one such reference, must we allow them all? If we deny one, must we deny them all?
When a Jewish student complains about Christmas carols sung at her school and images and symbols of Christmas adorning her classroom, is she being overly touchy? Are the songs and decorations religious, or should they be considered secular and simply seasonal, unrelated to anyone’s religious beliefs?
A basic principle of our democracy is the concept of “majority rules,” as evidenced by our free elections, but does the majority really rule in these particular instances?
Our nation’s founders sought to protect the rights and freedom of minority religious groups who were brutally persecuted in countries from which they came. The fact that most of America’s early leaders were not necessarily members of those groups is testament to their great wisdom and generosity of spirit. Recognizing theocracies as one of the world’s preeminent dangers is a remarkable vision and gift our country’s founders gave to us.
American citizens have a duty to honor and protect the rights of all, especially those who are under-represented in society. Majority clearly does not rule, in cases of possible discrimination.
That said, when minority groups appear to abuse the protections given them under our unique system of government, can anyone be surprised over the intensity of the backlash? The 80 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Christian also have rights that must be respected by the other 20 percent.
If communities want to call their tree a Christmas tree instead of a holiday tree, we don’t have to visit. If a department store’s employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” we have the choice not to shop there. If a street fair or festival is called a Christmas parade instead of a holiday parade or December Nights, we don’t have to attend. If shows are called Christmas pageants rather than winter pageants, we don’t need to buy a ticket.
But public schools are unique institutions in our society. They are places where students come together to be part of a whole – each equal, each respected for his or her special qualities, each welcomed for the abilities and personal attributes they bring to the school community.
Children cannot voluntarily get up and walk out of public school. It is not the same as choosing to boycott a store where employees say “Merry Christmas.” There is no choice but to be there, unless they opt out of the public education system.
Religious observance or celebration has no place in the classroom where children are not free to leave if something offends or disturbs them. Schools must be places of refuge for children of all religious faiths and customs, not places where students can be made to feel different or excluded.
The fire and fury about the proper degree of Christmas in our communities cannot be allowed to spill over into public schools where the debate over too much or too little can be far too contentious, making children pawns in adult battles over intolerance.
The issues surrounding religion in the public schools are worthy of thoughtful, rational reflection. Superintendents like Ed Brand and Ken Noonan don’t want conflict within their walls, and neither do other educators. While they expect to contend with thorny issues, they are more likely to reach resolution through civility and harmony, not confrontation and strife.
By promoting understanding and tolerance of all religions, faiths and customs in public education, and by adhering to the First Amendment’s prohibition against the endorsement of particular religious beliefs, public schools can be sanctuaries where our youngest citizens can be blessedly free from the current climate of bitterness and heated exchange.
Marsha Sutton writes about education for Voice of San Diego and can be reached directly at