- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

A California public school's observance of the "Day of the Dead" an annual Latin American holiday that honors the deceased will be reviewed in a state court following complaints that it violated the Constitution's ban on religion in public schools.

One elementary school in Petaluma "invited" its 9-year-old students to bring in photographs of dead relatives, friends or pets, watch a video of people making offerings at altars, and make masks, "mariachi-style" skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls to mark the holiday.

Such activities incorporated "religious themes" that indicated the events were intended to be a practical application of "spiritual and religious themes," said Richard Ackerman, chief litigator at the conservative United States Justice Foundation in California.

The foundation, which litigates cases in which the rights of minors are threatened in educational settings, is taking the Petaluma School District to a state appeals court on behalf of a parent who objected to the Day of the Dead program.

School officials defended the program, saying they are simply following state guidelines that require the study of "social, political, cultural and economic life and interactions among the people of California from pre-Columbian societies to Meso-American societies."

Also, students are not required to participate in any of the activities, they said. The commemoration of the three-day holiday has been taking place this week in all fourth-grade classes throughout state.

Without holding a hearing, a county judge on Wednesday ruled against the foundation's request to stop the events in the schools. The judge said the activities are an acceptable "cultural event" and pose no "irreparable harm" for students.

Mr. Ackerman said he would be filing an appeal with the state Court of Appeals last night.

Mr. Ackerman said the school's activities violate the school district's policy against promoting religion in the classroom.

"All you have to ask is, are the altars, the marigolds and the sugar skulls religious symbols?" Mr. Ackerman said yesterday. "We don't have an issue of people celebrating the Day of the Dead. We do have an issue with them bringing it into public schools."

The schools' Day of the Dead activities are part of a citywide celebration that includes Petaluma's Latino groups and businesses. About 15 percent of the city's population is Latino, officials said. Petaluma is north of San Francisco.

"It is not illegal to teach about cultural practices even if some of them have religious overtones," said Robert Henry, an attorney who is representing the school district in the case.

"Teachers are not teaching religion. They are teaching about it. This is no more of a celebration than Thanksgiving is, quite frankly."

The Day of the Dead, also known as El Dia De Los Muertos, is a traditional Meso-American holiday on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 that honors death by emphasizing it as an important part of the cycle of life.

It is believed that the spirits of the dead are expected to visit their home and be given a meal. An altar, adorned with marigolds, candles, and candy skulls, is set up in a family's home to honor the deceased loved one.

As part of the celebration, city officials have set up traditional altars at 27 locations, including City Hall, the city library and the city community center, according to the Petaluma Arts Council. The city received a $4,000 grant this year to set up the altars.

School officials sent out a notice to parents on Oct. 11, describing in detail how students would be celebrating the Day of the Dead. It also said the celebration is an alternative to traditional Halloween parties and a way to learn about the state's Mexican and Spanish heritage.

Mr. Ackerman said some of the activities mimic religious rituals and practices and should not be allowed in school. "If they truly believe in promoting diversity, you'd see the same thing happen during Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Ramadam and Kwanzaa. Those holidays have significance, too."

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