Holiday observances up for vote

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

Amid heavy lobbying from parents and community members, Baltimore County school board members were voting last night on a policy to settle the thorny issue of holiday observances in the schools.

The proposed policy would permit the secular observances of religious holidays in schools but not the use of religious symbols, music or practices to celebrate those holidays.

The policy emerged after Superintendent Stuart Berger appointed a task force last winter to resolve the issue, which has divided some schools for many years.

That task force proposed a much more stringent policy that would have prohibited secular and religious celebrations of religious holidays but would have permitted teachers to incorporate religious beliefs, symbols and practices into lessons about religions and cultures.

Telling task force members that he would not be responsible for removing Halloween parties or Santa Claus from schools, Dr. Berger broadened the policy to permit secular celebrations. He suggested asking clergymen to decide which symbols are secular and which are not.

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 that presentation, people have been calling and writing school officials and school board members with differing opinions.

Board member Sanford V. Teplitzky said Monday that he has received about 20 letters and telephone calls, more than on any other single issue since he was appointed to the board a year ago this week.

School system spokesman Charles Herndon said school officials had received about 60 calls until yesterday, when they "were deluged" with dozens more. School offices in the southeastern area got an especially large number of calls, he said.

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

Board member Alan M. Leberknight said some people who called suggested that the board reject a change in favor of the existing policy. That policy prohibits religious indoctrination, worship services and display of religious symbols but deals with secular celebrations only with regard to musical and plays.

The board's vote was on a two-paragraph policy statement that reads, in part: "While it is appropriate to acknowledge the secular aspects of religious holidays, it is not within the proper role of the Baltimore County Public Schools to celebrate the religious aspects of any one or more religious holidays."

Accompanying the policy were 4 1/2 pages of "administrative rules," which are not subject to board approval. Those rules would allow holiday symbols "considered secular by a majority of the community."

That is in opposition to the task force, which said that "it is not within the [schools'] proper role . . . to celebrate either the religious or secular aspects of any one or more religious holidays."

The debate has focused mainly on Christmas celebrations, but task force members also 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.

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