LONG BEACH — Donna Voetee pulled her children out of school last week. The reason: Halloween decorations that, she said, smacked of Satanism.
"They have witches and black cats and goblins on the walls," Voetee said. "My kids can't sit under the altars of Baal. This witchcraft material is glorifying the devil."
Beryl Brooks, the principal of Jane Addams Elementary School where Voetee's two children--age 5 and 11--attended class, said she would consult district officials before deciding whether to change next year's Halloween observance. "I never thought about it that way," said Brooks, who has been an educator for 33 years. "I have always looked on Halloween as something children could enjoy."
This week the holiday was over and the decorations are gone, but so were Voetee's children. After spending a week with them at home, Voetee said she has decided to keep them there; She will teach them herself until the school changes its ways. "It was one battle after another," Voetee said, referring to her months-long struggle with school district officials over major philosophical differences.
It began in September when Voetee, a devout Christian, became outraged after her daughter saw a filmstrip with her fifth-grade class that the mother believes promotes witchcraft and occultism. It grew into a series of meetings between parents and the superintendent to discuss the filmstrip's fate.
And now it has evolved into a full-fledged battle involving several outside Christian groups that are challenging some of the basic tenets of public education in Long Beach and threatening legal action to get their way.
The parents say the district is teaching "secular humanism," a philosophy which, they say, emphasizes human rather than God-oriented values.
Secular humanism "is a religion," said Rodney Guarneri, one of the parents. "They are showing their bias and I don't think that's proper."
Said Harriet Williams, a member of the school board: "It's not a religion, but a compromise. We don't teach secular humanism in our schools--what we do is try to find a balance between all religions, and the compromise we sometimes reach is humanistic rather than Christian."
It is an argument heard around the country these days as a growing number of Christian parents raise the specter of humanism to protest the curriculum used in their local schools. Though recent court decisions have upheld the responsibility of public schools to offer alternative educational experiences to those with religious objections, there has been no consensus on the definition of "secular humanism" or its status in public education.
To Meet With Parents
Supt. E. Tom Giugni said he plans to meet with the Long Beach parents Wednesday to announce his final decision regarding future use of the filmstrip that started the dispute. The film promotes a children's mystery book called "The Headless Cupid."
Following Voetee's initial complaint, Giugni temporarily removed the film--which, among other things, deals with a young girl's forays into the world of occultism--from use in the school district. He also removed another filmstrip deemed objectionable by the parents, a work called "Banner in the Sky," which relates a young man's attempt to surpass the mountain climbing abilities of his dead father, whose ghost figures prominently in the plot.
But in a 16-page brief, the district's legal adviser--Theodore A. Buckley--has urged returning the films to use. Instead of preventing all students from viewing the materials, Buckley argued, the district should allow those students whose parents find the materials objectionable to "opt out" when they are shown.
"In seeking the permanent removal of the filmstrips," Buckley wrote, "the parents are asking the school district to provide . . . a remedy which it may not constitutionally provide. To remove 'The Headless Cupid' . . . would directly contradict the requirements of the First Amendment."
Giugni says he is inclined to follow Buckley's advice, a position the parents say they find unacceptable. To help make their point, they recently contacted the Christian Civil Liberties Union--an Anaheim-based group--which sent a letter to Giugni threatening legal action should the filmstrips be reinstated.
"The state simply cannot promote religious beliefs or value systems which indoctrinate children," said David Llewellyn, a professor at Simon Greenleaf School of Law--a Christian-oriented institution in Orange County--and legal adviser to the Christian Civil Liberties Union. Because the "The Headless Cupid" presents occultism in a way that is "seductively persuasive to impressionable children," he said, its use in a public school violates constitutional guarantees against the establishment of a state religion.