Christmas decorations and celebrations at some Ventura County schools are restricted as districts seek to comply with state laws requiring that a variety of religions be represented in holiday celebrations, or none at all. Should Christmas decorations or celebrations be allowed on public school campuses?
Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski
Regional director, Chabad of the Conejo
The Supreme Court on July 3, 1989, in their ruling wrote that the Christmas tree as well as the Hanukkah menorah can be looked at as cultural decorations and therefore do not violate separation of church and state. My view then would be that if a school chose to decorate, that it should be within the decorations that are approved by the Supreme Court, the tree and the menorah. We get complaints from many Jewish parents that there are lots of Christmas decorations in schools and very little Hanukkah. The holidays are not related at all, but nevertheless there are so many Jewish children who are just overwhelmed by the amount of Christmas and they feel kind of neglected, even though they have their holiday going on. So I don't view it as competition, I view it as a way of giving Jewish children a sense of pride in their heritage and their holiday. As a rabbi, my advice to a Jewish child asked to sing a Christmas carol is to respectfully decline.
May Lee Berry
Member, Ventura Unified School District Board of Education
Yes, the celebrations should be allowed because our country was based on religious freedom and a lot of our history involves the basis of different religions. One of our concerns is that we all learn about
different religions and cultures so that we can live together. The idea is to educate each other about traditions. I think all religions should be represented in the public schools. I don't think the purpose is as much participation as education. I've seen the curriculum, and it is on holiday traditions and incorporates countries, history and religions and how all of it was brought together. It gives an excellent background, and I was very impressed with it. There are very few Christmas programs any more. I couldn't even tell you the ones in Ventura Unified today. It is not as it was a number of years ago, in my opinion. The teachers are very specific about not wanting to take away from class time. Those big Christmas programs from a few years ago are not to be.
Rabbi Alan Greenbaum
Temple Adat Elohim
The issue here is the characteristically American concept of separation of church and state. Depending on how you read the Constitution, the intent of our Founding Fathers was either to not have an established state religion or for government to not be involved in any way in religious matters. Based on that American concept, I would prefer that there either be a variety of religious symbols displayed in the public classroom, including Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Moslem, for that is a reflection of our pluralistic American society, or that there be absolutely no religious symbols whatsoever. In either case, the letter and spirit of the Constitution would be upheld. In terms of Christmas celebrations per se, they need to be part of a much larger religious program or not at all. If we're not prepared to represent fully all the religions that exist in our country, then we should not engage in the Christmas celebration at all.
John L. Gennaro
President, Ventura Unified Education Assn.
Yes, I think so, as long as it is kept in balance. I think these are things children have grown up with, and I see no reason to not have a Christmas tree at school and perhaps a menorah and some of the symbols of the season. I think children grow up with these things and they understand we're a diverse culture of people who celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and people who don't celebrate anything. So my opinion is, as long as we stay within the guidelines of the school district and the education code, I think we're fine. I don't think that by doing these things we're definitely promoting any religious group over another. We're simply recognizing that they exist. I think if a person expressed for some reason that they didn't want to participate, I'm sure that request would be honored. I think we're dealing with reasonable people here, and folks are not going to try to impose something on a person who doesn't want it. The fact is that Christmas is part of our culture as a country.
Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union
There is an important difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion. We shouldn't try to remove all reference to our history of fighting for religious freedom from the public schools, but at the same time we shouldn't use that history to justify advancing one religious view. It is important to recognize that we are a diverse culture and that people do feel alienated when they see only the symbols of one religion and they feel that religion is being advanced by the government. Teaching religion is entrusted to the family under our Constitution. It is important that the public schools not undermine that, particularly with young children who may be especially sensitive to being a member of a different faith than the majority. That is the real problem because people sometimes really cross the line in their desire to celebrate the holiday. They don't sit down and think about it.