Schools OK with season, not reason

November 17, 2004

In a few short days, our public schools will begin confronting the “December Dilemma” — the tricky act of navigating those treacherous waters from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

Both are major holidays, both by their very names religious in origin. And even worse (gulp), Christian in origin. How to recognize the holidays without offending anyone or incurring a lawsuit strikes terror into the hearts of otherwise unflappable educators: Please, God, don’t let the American Civil Liberties Union be watching.

Oh, wait, I forgot: These are public school educators. Strike “God” from that last thought. Insert whatever nonspecific, generic, nonreligious descriptive term would allow for but not suggest the existence of a theoretical higher power. Strictly in a non-establishment way, of course.

Even in the Bible Belt, our public schools have become so worried about breaching that poorly understood “wall” separating church and state, they have gone to absurd lengths to suppress all religious expression during the holidays. Most specifically, ensuring that the celebration of the birth of Jesus does not in any way reference — er — Jesus. Santa and reindeer are fine. Winter festivals, Kwanzaa and even Hanukkah are fine — just no Nativity scenes, please. We can’t risk anyone feeling left out or offended.

Those who remember the whole point behind the holidays scratch their heads and wonder how on earth it has come to this. A portion of the Constitution designed to protect religious liberties is being misinterpreted as a mandate to restrict them.

Our forefathers were wise to forbid the establishment of a state religion. They fled a regime that persecuted religious minorities who disagreed with their state brand of Christianity; we’ve seen the same danger in state-mandated Islam. But our Constitution also forbids anything that would prevent the free exercise of religion. And the 80-plus percent of American schoolchildren who celebrate the religious meaning of the holidays should be allowed the appropriate celebration of that faith.

Ironically, as the Christian-based December Dilemma approaches, other school districts could learn from our local Gwinnett County schools’ accommodation of Muslims. Last week, Gwinnett showed a remarkable amount of religious-liberty common sense and goodwill by finding a way to reasonably accommodate the religious practice of Muslim students.

Because the Quran requires Muslims to congregate for Friday prayer before school lets out, Muslim students are torn between fulfilling their lawful duty (being educated) and their religious duty (praying at the mosque). Thankfully, the school district devised a way these students could do both, without unduly restricting the education or religious practice of others. Each Muslim student now has the flexibility to go to Friday prayers by taking five in-school classes instead of six during the school year, making it up through an online class or other outside credit.

David French, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spends his days trying to persuade schools and colleges not to trample on student religious liberties. He was appreciative of Gwinnett County’s action. “They are being very civil and reasonable with the Muslim system,” he said. “They don’t have to accommodate those requests, legally, but as long as those requests aren’t disruptive they should, morally.”

I hope this reasonable approach is consistently applied, and translates into making December less of a dilemma in our area. I don’t see the ACLU threatening to sue Gwinnett County for accommodating Muslims. And letting Muslim students out of an entire in-school class for the whole school year is certainly a bolder step than including a Nativity scene in a diverse holiday display, or including traditional Christmas carols in a diverse school choir concert. Let’s hope our school districts will be emboldened to appropriately accommodate Christians, too.