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Religion News Service

December 6, 2005 Tuesday 5:52 PM Eastern Time

How One School District Solved the ‘December Dilemma’

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR.

SECTION: DOMESTIC

LENGTH: 911 words

DATELINE: MUSTANG, Okla.

When the superintendent in this Bible Belt town yanked baby Jesus from a fifth-grade school play — but left in symbols of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, along with Santa Claus — a small army of parents erupted in protest.

Some even blamed the defeat of a $12.9 million school bond election on voters irked by Superintendent Karl Springer’s exclusion of the Nativity scene.

But in the months after last year’s controversy, school officials, religious leaders and parents came together to develop a religious liberties policy that has helped mend, if not heal completely, the strained relations.

“I can pretty much guarantee that Mustang is not going to have a fight this year,” said Charles Haynes, co-author of “Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools” and a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

As school districts nationwide grapple with the “December Dilemma” of how to mark the holidays, Haynes suggests that this Oklahoma City suburb’s experience offers a case study in what can go wrong — and right.

From coast to coast, battles over Christmas carols in school concerts, religious-themed holiday cards at class parties and Christmas trees in school hallways seem to rage every year, pitting groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State against Christian activists such as the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Counsel.

Just last year, lawsuits were filed in Plano, Texas, over a school’s refusal to let a fourth-grader hand out candy canes to classmates, and in Maplewood, N.J., over a district’s policy of allowing secular songs, such as “Jingle Bell Rock,” but not hymns, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

In Hampton, N.H., a seventh-grader dressed as Santa Claus was asked to leave a holiday dance last year by a principal citing a desire to be sensitive to other religious beliefs.

In Mustang, the manger scene in the Lakehoma Elementary fifth-grade play had been a tradition for years. That is, until the superintendent axed it on the advice of the district’s legal counsel, who voiced concerns about violating the separation of church and state.

However, the district allowed a Christmas tree and Santa Claus to remain in the production, as well as symbols of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the African-American harvest celebration of Kwanzaa.

Outraged, Kim Selvey and a dozen other parents hired an attorney to take their concerns to the school board.

The night of the program, protesters organized a live Nativity scene across the street from the school auditorium. Organizers carried signs such as, “No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas.”

“There were other quote ‘religions’ in the play. There were witches in the play,” said Selvey, a mother of two who attends an Assemblies of God church. “I felt pretty strongly about the fact that they chose the Christian religion to exclude.”

What started as a small dispute “got huge really, really quickly,” said Dave Bryan, pastor of Chisholm Heights Baptist Church, one of more than 30 churches in this part-urban, part-rural bedroom community of 14,000.

“Looking back on it, I think it’s because as a Christian, it seems like so many things in the United States are changing. So many things are being taken away,” Bryan said. “So when this happened, it was so easy for it to become explosive. It sort of hit us where we lived and breathed. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Mustang.”

The furor was all-too-familiar to Haynes, who was called to help mediate.

All too often, Haynes said, schools wait until December to decide their approach to religious issues when they should be developing clear policies in January.

At one extreme, many school Christmas assemblies seem “more like the local church than the local school,” he said. At the other extreme, districts strip any reference to the religious aspect of Christmas, in effect making the school hostile toward it.

“The reason people fight over these symbols is because they think that’s all there is,” Haynes said. “In other words, if we lose our tree in the lobby or if we can’t have our Nativity pageant, that’s the last vestige of our religion in the schools.”

But there’s a way to recognize the importance and history of religion in American society in a way that’s educational, not devotional, he said.

That could mean, for example, a holiday program noting that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas. A Nativity scene with a candlelight ceremony would be too much, he said.

In Mustang, Bryan served as co-chairman of a 30-member task force formed early this year to develop a religious liberties policy for the school district. Members included Christian and Jewish religious leaders, teachers, school administrators and parents.

The policy approved by the school board in May states: “Public schools may neither instill nor inhibit religion.” It went on to say “Mustang Public Schools uphold the First Amendment by protecting the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or no faith.”

Springer, the school superintendent, said “great progress” has been made.

This year’s Lakehoma Elementary program will feature a brief Nativity scene, he said.

But it will include this clear attribution: “Some Christians believe.”

“It’s a small change that makes a big difference,” Springer said.

LOAD-DATE: December 7, 2005

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