Too Much of a 'Good' Thing?

JEFFREY M. LANDAW

December 21, 1992|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

When Cal Thomas recently attacked what he called the decline of Christmas observances in the public schools (''Merry Winter Holiday: Banning Christmas from the Schools,'' Dec. 15), he probably was too excited to edit out two little words that revealed the flaw in his argument.

Mr. Thomas accused "a tiny minority" of trying "to keep many people from exercising their religious and free speech rights." He cited the Supreme Court's decision last summer in the Rhode Island case of Lee vs. Weisman, which outlawed religious references at public school ceremonies, and a case of nerves in Frederick County, Va., where the school superintendent apparently tried to pre-empt possible lawsuits by ordering employees to refer to Christmas as ''winter holiday'' and Easter as "spring break.''

Such a ruse should be deeply offensive to ''traditional Christians,'' Mr. Thomas wrote. Then came the two words: ''. . . and Jews.''

Traditional Jews may indeed feel isolated in modern secular society -- in much the same way Mr. Thomas claims traditional Christians do -- but they aren't rushing to join his crusade. The most traditional ones I know aren't in the public schools at all, and one reason is that the ''Christmas'' observances that are too little for Mr. Thomas are too much for them.

Mr. Thomas is correct in saying that it wasn't always this way. But he is wrong in arguing that the change has been for the worse. And certainly the change has nothing to do with ''Christophobia.''

My wife and I went to public school in the 1950s in New York. There we were unapologetically taught that if we wanted to be Americans, we'd better recognize Christmas as one of our holidays.

It was a demand that eventually involved my wife's family, which was more traditional than my own, in a four-year fight with the school system. It ended only when their children were redistricted into a school that had a Jewish majority.

Ironically, the the families of the Jewish students at the school weren't mollified by efforts to give Hanukkah equal time with Christmas. They didn't want any religious practice taught in school.

Even so, New York's system made more concessions to us than the school system of Fitzgerald, Ga., made to the generation of former Reagan Civil Rights Commission Chairman Morris Abram.

Mr. Abram, a Jew who grew up in the South during the Depression, wrote in 1986 that ''Southern public schools were white Protestant establishments in everything but name. The day began with prayers featuring New Testament scriptures -- including the tirades against the Jews in the Gospel of John -- read by teachers employed by the state.''

No system has a right to do that to an adult, much less to a child. Whatever knots the Supreme Court ties itself into over whether to allow, say, a Nativity scene on public property, the question of religion in public schools comes down to one basic issue: In an increasingly diverse society, public school observances of religious holidays either mean playing favorites among different beliefs or trivializing all religious holidays in precisely the ways Mr. Thomas condemns.

Proponents of ''strict separation'' of church and state are handing people like Mr. Thomas ammunition when, for instance, they advocate using history textbooks with the early settlers' religious motives left out. This does a disservice to both students and to history.

One could argue that the way out of the dilemma is to permit government funding of private schools -- including religious ones. The idea has a superficial appeal, but in the long run it would only serve to further divide America into ghettos for every ethnic and racial group. Surely that is not the goal of our public education system.

The overriding concern should be to ensure that all Americans receive the respect they deserve. We won't accomplish that by demanding that minorities respond gratefully to society's grudging tolerance -- or by complaining when they don't.

Though I don't think he quite realizes it, that seems to be what Mr. Thomas really wants.

Jeffrey M. Landaw is a Sun makeup editor.

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