- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

An increasing number of public schools nationwide are becoming no-Christmas zones this year in an effort by school officials to accommodate different cultures and not offend non-Christians.
Last week, several elementary teachers in Sacramento, Calif., said they had been banned from using the word "Christmas" in class, and a mother in San Diego was barred from reading a Christmas story to a fourth-grade class.
In New York, some school administrators asked teachers to limit holiday decorations to generic messages, such as "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," and some city schools barred Nativity displays but allowed exhibition of the Jewish menorah and the Islamic star and crescent.
As a result, a lawsuit has been filed.
Meanwhile, music and band teachers in Maryland, Virginia and Michigan are not having students sing or play some carols, such as "Silent Night" and "The First Noel."
Instead, music selections are kept "very secular" with songs such as "Let It Snow," "Frosty the Snowman" and "Jingle Bell Rock."
Critics of such school policies say they have had enough.
"We're at this point where no one wants to offend anyone, but you know what, I'm offended when teachers don't mention Christmas or pretend like it's not there," said Karen Holgate, director of policy at the Capitol Resource Institute, a pro-family public policy center based in California.
"You will always offend someone whether you like it or not, that's just the way life is. So we need to get over this once and for all and learn to tolerate each other's differences."
Others say teachers have become mindful about holiday songs and decorations after more parents began pushing sensitivity for non-Christians.
"What they need to do is develop a balance in the kind of songs they are teaching to children," Wendy Wagenheim, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told the Lansing State Journal. "Select songs that you know will not make anyone feel uncomfortable."
The trend is known as the "December dilemma," when holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah spark controversies about the display of symbols and the teaching of religions in school districts nationwide, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center.
As a result, complaints or lawsuits charging the overemphasis of Christmas prompt districts to either coat schools with decorations from all religions or ban religious decorations and teachings.
Both solutions are bad, Mr. Haynes said. The First Amendment permits schools to teach about world religions as long as one is not promoted above others.
"Unfortunately, these actions come out of the refusal by schools to address religion properly throughout the school year," Mr. Haynes said. "The bottom line is everyone knows it's Christmas. All the kids know it's Christmas, so this is the kind of thing that makes schools places of hostility and conflict unnecessarily."
In the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento, several first-grade teachers said they were told by the principal not to say "Christmas" at school. One teacher, who has been teaching a "Christmas around the world" program for 24 years, called lawyers at the Capitol Resource Institute for help.
School officials said they know nothing of the teacher's assertion.
"There's no ban on Christmas," said Deidra Powell, the school district's director of communications. "We do have a policy on religious matters that doesn't preclude anyone from making religious references. Everything we do should have educational value, and staff should not interfere with students' religious beliefs. We want all of our students to feel comfortable."
In local school districts, guidelines on celebrating the holidays do not allow students and teachers to show a preference for one religion.
But officials said they do not prohibit teachers from saying the word "Christmas."
"Federal and state laws do not allow schools to bar students from using words like Christmas," said Mychele Brickner, a Fairfax County School Board member. She said the trend toward not using the word in schools is "taking things too far."
Montgomery County Public Schools officials suggest that titles include such words as "December" and "winter" for concerts held during the holiday season. Music performed for holiday concerts has to "reflect a balance between sacred and secular, popular and classic," according to guidelines.
School officials said they are making an effort to be inclusive of all religions.
"We try to have songs on Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa, so no one should feel excluded," said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools. She also said decorations at school during the holidays were a mix of religious symbols.
Some parents said schools act coy about certain holidays but allow others to be named.
Lynn Bieber, who has a son at Bowie High School in Prince George's County, said it is not fair that schools have taken Christmas out of the holiday season, but have introduced other holidays, such as Kwanzaa.
"If we are going to recognize one thing, then we should recognize others. It has to be all or nothing," she said.

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