Schools walk holiday line

Season's symbols pose a dilemma

December 23, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

Ken Shapiro doesn't seem to be a Scrooge. He says he loves the holiday lights, has a Christmas tree in his home and hangs a 9-foot wreath outside.

But Shapiro, a longtime Baltimore County teacher who describes himself as a nonpracticing Jew, grows angry when he talks about one particular evergreen that is strung with multicolored lights. That's because the tree is on the grounds of Carney Elementary School - and he says it violates his religious freedom.

"In this case, Carney is showing preference for a Christian celebration," said Shapiro, a kindergarten teacher at Deer Park Elementary School in Owings Mills, who has taught in the school system for 30 years. "I know they aren't putting a manger on the lawn, but the tree is not a balanced representation for the community."

Shapiro says that school officials have ignored or dismissed his objections for at least the past three years.

Eileen Roberta, the school's principal, said Shapiro e-mailed his complaint to her this month but that she decided against responding.

"It's just lights on a tree," she said in an interview last week. "Personally, I don't think lighting a tree is supporting any particular religion. It's an activity. It's a festive season, so it's a festive activity. It's not a religious activity."

Known by some as the "December Dilemma," how to approach the holiday season is a perennial issue for school officials and community leaders.

Several organizations offer tips to help schools navigate the legal landscape of the holiday season.

The national First Amendment Center provides suggestions in a publication titled "Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools." And the Anti-Defamation League, a national nonprofit group, recently mailed letters to school districts across the country to offer guidelines.

"When a school does choose to acknowledge the December holidays, it is essential that the school must never appear to endorse religion or one particular religious faith over another," according to the letter, a portion of which is included on the ADL's Web site. The group's Web site also includes links to guides on how to choose appropriate holiday symbols to decorate school grounds.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston recently circulated the ADL's suggested guidelines to the system's area superintendents, said spokeswoman Kara Calder.

The First Amendment Center advises, "A common misconception is that it is permissible to promote Christianity at Christmas, provided that other religions receive similar treatment at other time. ... Instead of `balancing' Christmas with Hanukkah, teachers should work to ensure that all holiday activities focus on objective study about religion, not indoctrination."

John Whitehead, a constitutional law attorney and president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, said courts have given government entities - including public schools - substantial leeway on the matter. About five years ago, the civil liberties group created guidelines called "The Twelve Rules of Christmas" to help school systems understand the law.

"No court has ever ruled that you can't celebrate Christmas in schools," said Whitehead, who added that the issue took root in the early 1990s with a general demographic shift that has resulted in greater religious diversity.

"This is about recognizing tradition, and that's all it's about," he said. "I don't think a tree with lights on it, with no religious symbol, is religious. It would be straining to say that it's unconstitutional."

Nonetheless, Whitehead said many communities grappling with the issue have begun attaching more neutral titles to their holiday observances.

For instance, in the city of Charlottesville, N.C., where he lives, it's the "Tree of Illumination" that sits in the community center. Other cities have resorted to terms such as "community trees" and "holiday trees," he said.

Two months ago, he said, school board members in a suburban Chicago district considered nixing holiday-themed parties after objections were raised about a Muslim mother's wish to hang lighted crescent moons and stars at a school in celebration of Ramadan. The board relented after hundreds of parents protested, according to news reports.

"People are afraid to call it a Christmas tree. They're dodging controversy and are being too politically correct," Whitehead said.

Calder said the school system has not handled many complaints about lighted trees on school properties. She added that it's possible that complaints are being handled at the school-level and aren't reported to her office.

Meg O'Hare, president of the Carney Improvement Association and a county school board member, said she knows only about Shapiro's complaints about the tree.

She said County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder donated the 10-foot white fir to the association, which planted it at the school's entrance because "we consider the school the center of the community" and the annual tree lighting is a "community holiday celebration."

"This isn't a religious observation for us, this is a community holiday celebration," O'Hare said. "We're not putting the baby Jesus out there, for God's sake."

She said about 100 people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds attended this year's tree-lighting at Carney.

"That's what communities around here do," she said. "We're just trying to make community life a little bit better for everyone. The goal is to retain a sense of community in Carney, to let the children know they live in a place where people care about them."

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