School board allows holiday observances in the classroom

November 23, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Facing a noisy and often hostile crowd of parents, the Baltimore County school board threw out last night a proposal that would have placed new restrictions on religious holiday practices in the classroom.

The board's unanimous vote allows schools to continue their existing holiday practices, which vary from community to community under vaguely worded rules that have been in effect for years.

"I don't think the [proposed] policy accurately reflects existing practices, which up to this point have worked very well," said board member Robert F. Dashiell.

He was the first of several members to speak in what appeared to be a well-scripted and fatal assault on the proposal from Superintendent Stuart Berger.

That proposal drew an emotional outburst from the community, including the Christian right, which wants more religion in the schools, and others who thought the Berger proposal didn't go far enough toward keeping religion out.

The superintendent's plan, the result of an equally emotional outburst last year at a Catonsville-area elementary school, would have banned religious observances but allowed "secular" observances of religious holidays and their secular symbols, such as Santa Claus.

Even some parents who were opposed to the policy change weren't happy with the board's decision.

"I don't trust them. They will let it slide this time and come back later," said Joe Boteler, a parent from Perry Hall. "I would like to see them stand firm on the existing policy."

The crowd responded with boos and jeers when board member Sanford V. Teplitzky said that he would still be opposed to schools putting Christmas trees in their entry foyers because that would "give the impression that the school was promoting a specific religion."

Mr. Teplitzky, a former president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he would be equally opposed to a display of a Hanukkah menorah.

"I think it's incredibly important that we practice religious neutrality," he declared.

Board member Alan M. Leberknight reprimanded the crowd for what he said was its intolerance of Mr. Teplitzky's suggestions.

Dr. Berger's proposal emerged after he appointed a task force of parents, teachers and students last winter to resolve the issue, which has divided some schools for many years.

After months of meetings, the task force proposed a much more stringent policy that would have virtually eliminated religious practices and symbols that were not part of the formal curriculum, such as studies of world religions and cultures.

Deciding that he didn't want to be responsible for eliminating Halloween parties or removing Santa Claus from schools, Dr. Berger broadened the proposal to permit secular celebrations. He also suggested asking a panel of clergy to decide which symbols are secular and which are not.

"It seemed to me that [the task force recommendation] was probably too extreme a position," Dr. Berger said. "On the other hand, I do agree with the committee's position that the celebration of holidays is inappropriate. It is a difficult dilemma."

Members of the task force were upset with the board's action.

"I feel very disappointed. We did not expect the board members to literally buckle, " said Dr. Bash Pharoan, the president of the Islamic Society of Maryland who has three children in county schools.

In presenting the policy two weeks ago, Richard Bavaria, the school system's director of arts and humanities, warned the board that on this issue, "compromise satisfies almost no one. You have the basic conflict between public policy and private needs."

Since then, people on all sides of the issue have been bombarding school officials and board members with calls and letters.

Board member Phyllis Ettinger said she has received 60 calls on the issue. School system spokesman Charles Herndon said school officials had received about 60 calls until yesterday, when they "were deluged" with dozens more.

Mr. Teplitzky and Mr. Herndon said some callers were confused about the proposal, believing that Dr. Berger was trying to remove all holiday observances.

The debate has focused mainly on Christmas celebrations, but task force members wanted to include other holidays, such as Halloween and Easter, and images such as Buddha and New Age crystals.

Those who want to ban virtually all holiday celebrations say they exclude children with different beliefs, making them feel hurt and rejected.

The long-simmering debate boiled over at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville last December. Jewish families there have been working to eliminate Christmas symbols and celebrations from their childrens' school. Last year, some Christian families fought to preserve their traditional celebrations and designed a mural that depicted symbols of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Some Jewish families objected to the mural, which included a nativity scene, and asked Dr. Berger to rule on its appropriateness. He said the scene violated the regulations governing religious observances in public schools. The image was replaced with shopping bags full of gifts.

It was then that the superintendent appointed the task force, saying that he wanted a consistent policy that would not be open to interpretation by teachers and principals.

Jeffrey Sippel, who represented a group called Citizens for Excellence in Education, said last night that he had asked Dr. Berger for a position paper setting out exactly what is permitted under the existing policy. He said Dr. Berger had agreed to do so.

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