Features

Stealing Christmas

National | COURTS: The holiday season is lawsuit season for secularist grinches; religious-liberties groups fight for displays, and offer tips

Issue: "Iraq: Bloody Ramadan," Nov. 29, 2003

How's that again? Holiday displays of the Jewish menorah and Islam's star and crescent are allowed in the some 1,200 public schools in New York City, but the creche, or nativity display, is not?

Not any longer if the Thomas More Law Center can help it. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Catholic civil-liberties group filed a lawsuit a year ago against the school system and several school officials. It acted on behalf of Andrea Skoros of Queens and her two elementary-school-age children upset at the policy banning the Christian symbol. The suit doesn't seek to prohibit the Jewish and Muslim exhibits, but to end discrimination against Christianity.

The case finally came before federal court in Brooklyn in mid-November for an initial hearing. The law center's Robert Muise, 38, an ex-Marine turned lawyer, asked Judge Charles P. Sifton to issue a preliminary injunction against the creche ban pending final judgment.

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New York schools chief Joel Klein's basic position is that the menorah and the star and crescent are admittedly religious symbols, but they have a "secular dimension" and are thus permissible, Mr. Muise told WORLD. The creche is a purely religious symbol with no secular dimension and is thus impermissible, Mr. Klein contends. Instead, he permits Christmas trees and nonreligious decorations to serve as symbols of Christianity.

"In reality, the creche has the most secular dimension of the symbols," Mr. Muise insisted to WORLD. One obvious piece of evidence: the date on Mr. Klein's calendar. "What's really going on here is anti-Christian bias," Mr. Muise said.

To back his case, Mr. Muise cited the landmark 1980 decision of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, Florey vs. Sioux Falls School District, the court rejected an atheist's attempt to prevent public schools in Sioux Falls, S.D., from featuring religious music and drama, including Christmas carols and pageantry, in their holiday programs. As long as such music and drama serve an educational purpose, it's constitutionally OK, the court ruled. It based its ruling on two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that permit studying the Bible in public schools.

The Sioux Falls decision cheered officers of the National Association for Music Education, which had seen some schools ban major works of Bach, Beethoven, and Handel. "The study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education," the group said. "[Its] omission ... would result in an incomplete educational experience." The 8th Circuit's decision is binding only within states under its jurisdiction, largely in the upper Midwest. But it has been used as a precedent in many other jurisdictions across the country.

The 10th Circuit issued a similar ruling several years ago. Mathew Staver, founder and president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel religious-liberties group, told WORLD the court's ruling boiled down to this: "A public school may sponsor a Christmas pageant and the school choir can sing 'Silent Night' as long as it also sings something like 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'" Mr. Staver says Liberty Counsel is focusing its efforts this year on educating the public about the law.

In an era when many schools across the country still ban Christmas music, art, and symbols, and some principals and teachers even have tried to prohibit the use of the word Christmas because Christ is part of the word, he said, "We've given up too much." Religious people need to know and fight for their rights: "Too many Christians are wimps."

Mr. Muise in the New York case also cited a 1993 New Jersey court ruling in Clever vs. Cherry Hill Board of Education. In upholding school policy allowing religious content in holiday programs, the court noted: "As our nation becomes overwhelmed with the tangible evidences of the year-end holiday spirit, the studied absence or even limitations of consistent celebrations might well be interpreted as government hostility to the celebrating religions."

In a nationally circulated magazine article, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice listed the following answers to questions that arise this time of year, based on court decisions:

Schools can teach about the biblical origin of Christmas in a historical or literary context.

Students can write about the origin of Christmas and Jesus' birth or other religious themes in school assignments.

Schools can refer to the winter vacation as "Christmas" break.

In short, schools cannot be religion-free zones at Christmastime.

During presentations, "the judge seemed hostile to the city's position," Mr. Muise told WORLD. For example, Judge Sifton probed to see how closely Mr. Klein had read the Torah in determining the menorah is more a secular rather than religious symbol.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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