December Dilemma For Schools

How to Celebrate

It's that special time of the year when sleigh bells jingle - and so does the telephone of Mathew Staver, an Orlando attorney who specializes in resolving religious conflicts in public schools.

Mr. Staver is besieged with calls from anguished parents nationwide, many concerned that "Jesus and Christmas" are being shut out of public school.

Meanwhile, Marc Stern at the American Jewish Congress in New York gets calls from Jewish parents, like one that implored: "They're making my son an infant Jesus [in a school Christmas pageant]. What should I do?"

Once upon a time, public schools were mostly geared to Christian holidays. But in the multiethnic classrooms of the 1990s, Christmas is side-by-side with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other religious festivals. Now, December is the year's toughest tightrope-walk for teachers and administrators.

Signs are growing, however, that teachers' "December dilemma" is giving way to viewing holidays as a tool for educating about religion - without causing outrage or an explosion of lawsuits.

"Today there is less confusion about whether religion can be in the classroom. It can," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "But there's more anguish about how to do it right."

Christmas in the Classroom: Bridging Religious Divides

Evelyn Holeman knows that feeling well. A former superintendent of schools in Wicomico County, Md., she recalls taking the state school superintendent on a tour of a local elementary school in December.

Her pride turned to embarrassment when they came upon a class reenacting the Nativity. One parent had brought in her baby, who was lying in a "manger."

"It was hard to believe this was occurring," she says. "Most parents loved it. But I asked the teacher if any children's' parents had objected. She said, just one - but she stayed home today."

Holidays like Christmas can either be prime time for teaching religion - or a disaster, says Mr. Haynes. The key is to teach religion in an academic way, without proselytizing. But before that can begin, "common ground" in the community is required, he says.

No 'religion-free' zones

A national consensus began to emerge in 1988 that religion could be taught in schools. That year, 200 prominent Americans signed a statement acknowledging the importance of religious understanding in public life.

Several years later, in 1995, President Clinton stated that schools were not to be "religion-free zones." Federal guidelines soon followed, as well as a framework for finding common ground, signed by education and religious groups.

"We now have guidelines - the problem is that what happened nationally is only slowly trickling down to the local level," Haynes says. "School districts often don't yet have policies that reflect that consensus. So when a crisis pops up, they're not prepared."

That's what happened last December in upper-middle class Manhattan Beach, Calif., when Janna Catalina donated a tree to her daughter's second-grade class at Pennekamp Elementary School. "I thought, 'the classroom is so stale - no art work, no spirit,' " she says.

The principal initially took the tree, but reversed himself after a confrontation with non-Christian parents. Ms. Catalina was incensed - and told the local paper.

Reaction was swift. A PTA meeting that week devolved into a "community shouting match," says Margaret Davis, a local parent. "I was alarmed at the feelings of community disintegration."

Not long after, however, she and other parents began working with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, which formed a holiday committee. It has since asked Haynes to speak to educators and the community. It also ordered 5,000 copies of "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" from the First Amendment Center and mailed them to every home.

"Scrubbing public schools clean of any sign of Christmas" is one way school officials try to avoid conflict, says Oliver Thomas, a Baptist minister and lawyer who specializes in religion and school cases. But doing so is no more constitutional than promoting it, he and Haynes agree.

Instead, they say, classes should discuss religions as holidays pop up. When Christmas arrives, discussing its significance will be part of a balance parents understand, they say.

Mort Sherman came to agree in 1992, when he stepped into a hornets' nest early in his tenure as superintendent of the small South Orangetown (N.Y.) Central School District.

The district was getting more students of different faiths. Yet the community had a longstanding affection for Christmas trees and other symbols in the schools.

What ensued was a "to creche or not to creche" controversy - tense but mostly respectful, Mr. Sherman says. He invited Haynes to speak. He also organized a committee to report to the school board on community values, holidays, and how to approach religion in the schools.

"We wanted to create a civic framework ... to really understand more what Muslims, Jews, Christians believed, and their history," Sherman says. Over the next two years, the board adopted a policy to teach Diwali (a Hindu holy day), Ramadan (Muslim holy days), Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Passover, even Flag Day.

Room for all beliefs

In December, some parents still complain about the lack of Christmas ornaments. But the bottom line is that Christian beliefs are now taught alongside other religions, Sherman says.

"It is all right now ... to talk about religion, to have a discussion in class about the meaning of Easter or Yom Kippur," he says.

Yet even in success, misunderstandings may linger. "Someone asked me not long ago whether it was permissible to put red-and-green sprinkles on cupcakes they were sending to school," Sherman says. "They were serious."

But teaching many religious observances seems increasingly workable to many. A number of school districts are signing up for the "Three Rs Project" (rights, responsibilities, and respect) created by Haynes and the First Amendment Center.

Introduced in California, Georgia, and at least a half dozen other states, it is endorsed by groups as varied as the Christian Educators Association International, the National Conference, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Haynes spoke in nine states this fall. He'll also revisit the Manhattan Beach school, where relations are better but still strained a year after the tree fiasco. But some parents are optimistic.

"Now we're going to all be speaking the same language in terms of civic action and ... the role of religion in schools," Ms. Davis says. "We will be living what the First Amendment means. That's what holds us together as a community and as a country."

Planning For Religious Holidays

Schools may be able to avoid conflict over holiday activities by first considering some key questions:

* Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?

* How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course or the educational mission of the school?

* Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity?

* Do I plan activities about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December?

* Am I prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students' understanding of history and cultures?

Source: Charles Haynes, First Amendment Center

Resources for Teachers:

* A list of books and other resources, including curriculum material that are often recommended by teachers, can be obtained by writing to:

The First Amendment Center

Vanderbilt University

1207 18th Avenue, South

Nashville, TN 37212

* Calendars of religious and ethnic holidays can be obtained from:

National Conference

71 5th Avenue

New York, NY 10003

(212) 206-0006

Educational Extension Systems

P.O. Box 259

Clarks Summit, PA 18411

(717) 586-6490

* Other useful Web sites:

An interfaith calendar provided by the Mall Area Religious Council in Minneapolis.

1995 statements on religion in schools by President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley as well as federal guidelines for religious expression in public schools.

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