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Expelling Santa from school? Holiday observance in a politically correct age

Published: Friday, Dec. 6 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

“Our public schools are for all children, regardless of background and religion,” said David Barkey, Anti-Defamation League’s religious freedom counsel. “If a school does everything associated with Christmas — Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer — that can be done in a secular and neutral way that is not indoctrinating. But it does convey a message of exclusion to children who don’t observe Christmas. It’s better to be inclusive than exclusive.”

Not necessarily, said David French, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“’Inclusivity’ is a funny word,” French said. “It’s a word people use to describe their own set of values. Policymakers have to choose between competing ideas, and someone is always unhappy. No one has the right to coerce religious activity. On the other hand, there is no legal right that protects you from feeling offended or excluded.”

French said parents who are displeased by lawful holiday images and activities in schools can try to persuade principals or school boards to make changes.

“But if they try to persuade and fail, that is not the same as having rights violated,” he said.

Graciousness toward others can go a long way toward keeping everyone comfortable during December’s dilemmas, said Evonne Lack, a mother and freelance writer from North Carolina. Lack is Jewish; her husband is Catholic. Santa Claus is not part of Christmas traditions in their home, but Lack teaches her children to be pleasant and polite when well-meaning adults ask them what they want him to bring for Christmas.

“’Just smile, I tell them,” Lack said. “If you are going to be a minority, things like that will happen.”

Lack isn’t bothered by Christmas decorations and carols at malls and other privately owned places. She doesn’t think Santa needs to be banned from school. But if Santa and other Christmas symbols are used in government-owned schools, she expects there to be an educational purpose and equal treatment for other traditions.

Lack, a lifelong American, said the same in a column she wrote for babycenter.com and was surprised by the vitriolic responses readers posted. “This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, go back to your country,” is one that stuck in her mind.

Finding fairness

With just a little twist, holiday school assignments that favor a single tradition can be made more inclusive, said Buchman, the Texas school administrator. She remembers the confusion her daughter felt when, as a fourth-grader, she was assigned to write a letter to Santa Claus, who plays no part in the Buchman family’s holiday celebrations.

Children could be assigned instead to write about their family’s December traditions, she said. There is no legal problem with schoolchildren responding to such an assignment by writing about Santa Claus, Nativity programs featuring baby Jesus, Hanukkah observance, sledding parties — whatever their families enjoy. Legal and sensitivity issues arise only when a school is perceived to be favoring or promoting a particular religion tradition.

A little tolerance on all sides helps, Buchman said. She counseled friends who brought traditional Jewish treats to their children’s school for a lesson on Hanukkah to stop complaining about the Christmas tree at a classroom holiday party.

“They didn’t understand that they couldn’t have it both ways,” she said. “Nor did they understand what was and wasn’t permissible under the law.”

There is no need to expel Santa, or any other secular holiday symbol, from schools. Some careful consideration about how they are used can head off problems, though. Buchman’s suggestions to help school staff navigate the December dilemma include:

Build strong, positive relationships with parents before touchy issues arise

Take a constructive, solution-based approach to challenges

Know both the law and the spirit of the law

Tie holiday references to educational purposes whenever possible

Favor activities that give students choices that honor their own traditions

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker

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