Deck the Halls With Boughs of Pluralism


'TIS the season to be ... pluralistic. Sound like a downer on the holiday spirit? It shouldn't, because it is a sensible solution to what has been a sensitive situation in the United States public schools at a time of traditional displays and festivals.

Advocating Christianity, or Judaism, or any religion in the classroom is impermissible under the American constitutional concept of separation of church and state. But does this mean that children whose families embrace specific religious concepts must be wholly deprived of those traditions in school?

Certainly not. A coalition of religious and educational organizations believe they have a reasonable answer to the problem. Simply, it is this: Take an academic, as opposed to a devotional, approach to the religious holidays.

This group, which includes the American Jewish Committee, the Christian Legal Society, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National School Boards Association, among others, has issued a brochure, ``Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.'' This publication is available free of charge from the Americans United Research Foundation, 900 Silver Spring Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910.

The pamphlet says programs and dramatic productions that emphasize the cultural meaning of the holiday are appropriate school exercises. It also says that Nativity pageants or depictions of Hanukkah should not be allowed in this public setting. Music related to Christmas, but not religious music, is acceptable.

The US Supreme Court, over the years, has ruled that schools may not sponsor religious practices but they may teach about religion.

It further has held that recognition of holidays by the schools may be constitutional if the purpose is to provide secular instruction about religious traditions, rather than to advance a particular religion.

Courts, or any other public body, should not be in the business of keeping Biblical precepts from the classroom or encouraging an antireligious tone in the schools. Discussion of the scriptures and other aspects of religion are properly a part of the educational process. Religious proselytizing or indoctrination is not.

Likewise, state-approved prayer or even set-aside time for a moment of silence may be intrusive on the privacy of many children. This does not suggest that youngsters don't have a right to pray on their own, even on public grounds.

Perhaps what would be most constructive - with the permission of parents and the blessing of teachers and administrators - would be teaching about a variety of religious beliefs in the effort to promote greater tolerance and understanding.

Young children, in particular, are naturally tolerant. They lack prejudices and stereotypes about those whose beliefs are different from their own.

The opportunity at this season is to stress brotherhood and respect diversity. There are deep religious roots for both these ideas, which should be welcomed in, not barred from, the schoolhouse door.

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