December is never any easy time for public schools. Hannukah. Kwanza. Christmas. Not to mention all the other faiths that don’t celebrate holidays this time of year, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t celebrate period. What to do? Schools in Connecticut, Oregon and California made headlines this week grappling with the “December Dilemma.”
Erik Brown, principal of Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Connecticut has banned Christmas parties and decorations in classrooms so as to avoid offending students of other faiths. Instead, the school will have a “winter celebration,” where they’ll include songs from Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas.
Though Christmas celebrations have been banned since Brown became principal five years ago, debate over the issue resurfaced this year when Board of Education member Paul D’Angelo revealed his plan to change Brown’s policy. D’Angelo circulated a policy proposal to the Board on Monday that would allow educators freedom to observe holidays as they saw fit (NBC reports).
“There seems to be a war specifically targeted against those of the Christian faith,” D’Angelo said. “There’s not much we can do about it in the world. But I can do whatever I can as a school board member to make sure it doesn’t infest our schools” (The Republican American reports).
Brown responded, “”This is not a church. It’s a school and it’s a public school. I have to do things that include every child. So what we do is celebrate winter” (FOX reports).
Superintendent David L. Snead is standing by Brown, calling the issue of religious celebrations “especially difficult” in December and reminding all staff at the district’s schools that holidays festivities can proceed but without religious overtones. The Hartford Courant weighs in.
An elementary school in Oregon has decided to forgo Santa Claus and Christmas trees too. A principal has banned them from her school, saying, “The Christmas tree, while a secular symbol according to the Supreme Court, does symbolize Christmas, and if you are entering a public school and your family does not celebrate Christmas, then it feels like a religious symbol.” (Christian News Wire reports and The Oregonian weighs in).
And in California, its holiday music that’s raising eyebrows. Essex County, a parent filed suit in 2004, “arguing that eliminating sacred music from holiday programs discriminates against Christianity in violation of the First Amendment.” The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finally came to a decision, ruling that public schools are not constitutionally compelled to include religious music. Though the parent, Michael Stratechuk, has vowed to take his case to the Supreme Court, the school district stands by the decision (Courier Post Online reports).
Approaching issues around religion in public schools is always tricky, and it can be particularly difficult this time of year. There aren’t any sweeping solutions; each school and school district can come up with creative, respectful and inclusive answers.
The “December Dilemma” is an opportunity for administrators and teachers to educate young people about different religious and cultural traditions and encourage them to learn about one another.