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Religion finds its place in public schools

With increasing commercialization of Christmas, the sharp separation of church and state seems to be fading to a light shade of gray.

Gone are the hard and fast rules keeping religious symbols out of state and federal offices. The Christmas tree has taken on meaning beyond religious symbolism, and in school where religion has long been a point of contention, Santa Clauses and colored lights have sprung up in time for the holiday season.

Church and state have indeed crossed paths. Among their meeting places: the public school system.



“Christmas has become so commercialized that it’s not always just a religious holiday anymore. It certainly has religious connotations and meanings, but it’s also recognized as a time of gift giving and good will toward man or woman, and that goes beyond religious connotations,” said El Dorado County Schools Superintendent Vicki Barber.

Christmas trees have been donated to Douglas County schools by local service organizations, and holiday decorations have been hung at schools on both sides of the state line. Despite what appears to be observance of a religious holiday, caution is often used.




One Kingsbury Middle School employee said Christmas lights are hung and Christmas trees are in place on campus, but that she learned 10 years ago that wishing someone a merry Christmas was frowned upon at the state level. There are inconsistencies, she said. “We work it out as best we can,” she added.

According to Barber, Christmas trees get a nod of approval. A nativity scene, on the other hand, would cross the line.

Right and wrong, says the California Department of Education.

“Maybe even a nativity scene would be legal,” said Mike Hersher, deputy general counsel for the California Department of Education. “The U.S. Supreme Court is the last word on the subject and, basically, the Christmas season has a lot of different imagery – folklore, music and cartoons – with no particular religious celebration.

“There’s a lot of symbolic celebration, but it’s not an attempt to inculcate Christianity or the stuff Christmas is really about,” Hersher said.

What has happened, Hersher said, is that the holiday season has become a part of the American culture, and that culture is very much driven by trade.

“There’s so much utilization of cultural images for commercial purposes that people don’t associate it any more with going to church than going to the mall,” Hersher said.

Schools do have some guidelines to follow when it comes to religion and the role that it plays in education.

In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that no public school would sponsor religious practices, but the ruling left the teaching of religion in arts, music, history and other contexts wide open. The ruling did not address religious holidays in schools, so in 1980, when a lower federal court ruled that recognition of holidays was constitutional if the recognition provided secular instruction about traditions rather than promote the particular religion involved, the high court let it stand.

Today, the California Department of Education can only pass that information along when school districts in the state are confronted with questions about religion and the role it plays. The rules, however, are still unclear.

“The lower courts are not clear and not together in these kinds of decisions. The thread is that it’s all right (to put religious symbolism in the classroom) as long as there’s a mix (of religions),” said Hersher’s colleague, Roger Wolfertz.

According to Wolfertz, there was originally no room for discussion about religion in the classroom. When the Constitution addressed the separation of church and state, it made clear the rule that religion was to play no part in a students’ day at school.

“It used to be a high, impregnable wall,” Wolfertz said.

But among the gray and fading lines, there is one rule the state department can endorse for proper treatment of holiday decor: “No one should have their personal views criticized or interfered with. If you can legitimately say that what you’re doing is appreciating cultural diversity, even if it has religious ties, then that’s OK. As long as the imagery that goes with it doesn’t proselytize,” Hersher said.

And that’s where most schools in California, and in the nation, succeed. Cultural respect is receiving increased attention, particularly in heavily culturally mixed communities.

School districts throughout the nation have taken on the task of deciding what’s allowable and what is not.

“Several years ago it was brought to my attention that people celebrate different religions, and that some people don’t celebrate religion at all. I became politically corrected,” said Doug Forte, principal of Meyers Elementary School, who participated this year in organizing the students’ holiday program.

“I didn’t realize I wasn’t being sensitive until I had it pointed out to me by a parent. I’m now more aware that just because I celebrate Christmas doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, most of the world doesn’t,” Forte said.


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