Schools Under Fire Again for Aiding Christian Relief Organizations

Schools Under Fire Again for Aiding Christian Relief Organizations

A media report about a West Virginia middle school participating in a charity event serving a Christian-based relief organization in West Virginia has led to threats of potential legal action tied to the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

An individual claiming to be associated with the FFRF has told this will be addressed by legal teams.

This is not new. Last year several high profile media stories put the spotlight on schools participating in Operation Christmas Child, perhaps the most famous Christian relief organization using schools to pack shoe boxes full of hygiene items and small gifts for third world countries.

The argument from groups protesting school participation or threatening lawsuits against them is that the relief organizations use the boxes and the effort to proselyte. By participating in the effort schools are violating the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, they argue.

In the story from West Virginia above the relief organization is Appalachian Outreach, an organization who describes its efforts as “Guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit”. According to the news story school time was used to support the effort. “We have the students volunteering here, their time during their phys. ed. classes and health classes to wrap Christmas presents here for Appalachian Outreach,” said Moundsville Middle School teacher, Mike Sforza.

Don’t be surprised if this story hits the media following a letter threatening a lawsuit against the school board over Moundsville Middle School in West Virginia.

Calls for Christmas Go Unheeded in Massachusetts

Calls for Christmas Go Unheeded in Massachusetts

The age-old debate of a school district labeling time off in December “Christmas break” continues to rage in Marshfield, Massachusetts. As we reported more than a month ago the school board already stuck a fork in Christmas, despite public outcry to their decision.

But residents in Marshfield are not giving up.

At a school committee meeting Tuesday night, several residents asked members to reconsider the September vote that changed the name “Christmas vacation” to “holiday break” on the calendar. The vacation week begins on Christmas Eve and ends the Monday after New Year’s Day.

Resident Elaine Taylor presented the committee with a petition signed by 443 people who want to see the vote reversed and the name “Christmas vacation” restored.

None of the school committee members responded to the residents’ request, which was presented during the public comment period of the meeting. Chairwoman Marti Morrison said the committee would hear residents’ concerns but would not engage in any dialogue on the matter.

Marshfield resident Gregory Hargadon said he sampled 85 people around town about the change to “holiday break” and not one person voiced support for it.
“This is Marshfield. It’s not Cambridge,” he said. “The overwhelming majority would like it changed back.”

He called the vote by members “an arbitrary decision based upon their own opinions,” and said the vacation is based around Christmas, which is a federal holiday whether or not one celebrates it.

“The holiday is called Christmas. That’s what it’s called,” he said. “It’s a race to be politically correct. … One person says something and you change it like that. If someone says they don’t like the American flag, are you going to remove that? Where does this end?”

The school board didn’t engage the conversation and there are no indications Christmas will be back on school calendars any time soon in Marshfield.

California Candy Cane Case Headed to Federal Court

California Candy Cane Case Headed to Federal Court

In the waning days of the 2013 Christmas season came the sad story of a six year old first grader who had his candy cane gifts for his classmates taken by his school teacher before he could distribute them. The problem? Attached to each candy cane was a religious themed message.

The teacher took possession of the candy canes once she saw that a religious message was attached. Then, after conferring with the school principal, the teacher told six year old student Isaiah Martinez that “Jesus is not allowed in school” and ripped the message from each candy cane and threw them in the trash while he watched.

She then handed the candy canes back to Isaiah to hand out to his classmates, which he nervously did, fearing he was in trouble for trying to attempting to spread “good tidings” with the class.

The story made national headlines. The issue, Isaiah’s parents and lawyers point out, is free speech. The issue, school officials say, is separation of Church and State. The gifts were from Isaiah, not the school.

Advocates reportedly chose to take on the case, explaining that schools often have a “misunderstanding of the separation between church and state.”

The group sent a letter to the West Covina Unified School District demanding that the school apologize for how Isaiah was treated and adopt a policy prohibiting school officials from discriminating against or intimidating Christian and other religiously-affiliated students.

After conducting an investigation, the school district decided that their actions were warranted, and Superintendent Debra Kaplan released a statement to Los Angeles-area news outlets defending the teacher’s actions. “At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner,” Kaplan stated In response, advocates appealed to the school board requesting once again that Isaiah be allowed to hand out the candy canes and that the school board revise its policies.

When the school board also failed to adopt a new policy, Advocates appealed to the California Department of Education but the CDE has not yet responded.

“We shouldn’t be raising our kids to be afraid of expressing their Christian faith,” attorney Robert Tyler told NBC.

“The school has neglected to correct its actions, and after exhausting all options to avoid a lawsuit we were left with no choice but to file a complaint in federal court. We are asking the court to protect Isaiah’s rights and the rights of others like him from having their religious speech censored. Students do not shed their First Amendment rights just because they enter into a classroom.”

This case is very similar to another candy cane case that took place in Plano, Texas more than a decade ago. That case has languished in the courts all these years with various judicial branches split on free speech in schools.

Marshfield Massachusetts Schools Opt Out of Christmas Break

Marshfield Massachusetts Schools Opt Out of Christmas Break

Hearts are not merry in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Despite loud public outcry over changing “Christmas Break” on school calendars to “Holiday Break” the school board by a 3-2 vote made the change anyway. It has been a hot-button issue in the community for several months.

After a debate that was at times somewhat heated, the School Committee voted 3-2 on the name change Tuesday, Sept. 9. Committee members Dennis Scollins and Richard Greer voted against it, favoring the traditional name for the break.

The topic was put on the agenda after a parent emailed Superintendent of Schools Scott Borstel and asked whether the break’s name could be changed to “winter vacation,” noting that the phrase Christmas break was slightly archaic.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that changing the name of the break has been happening slowly throughout the state in recent years.

“It’s been a trend over the last several years to secularize the winter break, the same way ‘Spring Break’ used to be ‘Easter Break,'” he said. However, Koocher said it’s generally not a big point of contention, and that his organization doesn’t regularly track which districts make the name change.

“Christmas is the legal name of the holiday,” Koocher noted, adding, “For whatever local reason, people have been making adjustments.”

In his remarks at the School Committee meeting, Scollins also noted that Christmas was a legal name for the holiday and said it was personally important to him to continue calling the break Christmas vacation.

“People are very comfortable with the word Christmas,” he said.

Greer agreed with Scollins, noting that it’s been called Christmas break for a long time and that it was a holiday Marshfield residents had historically celebrated.

Nancy Currie at first said she would vote to stay with Christmas, but changed her mind after hearing Shrand’s points on the matter, including that Shrand’s children had been teased in school for being half Catholic and half Jewish.

Chairwoman Marti Morrison said that from a practical standpoint, it made sense to keep Christmas in the name, since the holiday is the “only reason” that the break takes place at that time. However, she joined Currie and Shrand in voting in favor of the change.

Louisiana Lawmakers Unanimous in Support of Christmas Bill

Louisiana Lawmakers Unanimous in Support of Christmas Bill

Louisiana law makers love Christmas. Not a single lawmaker in Louisiana cast a “no” vote on that’s state’s version of the Merry Christmas Bill.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed legislation that would allow for holiday symbols to be displayed in public schools as long as items representing multiple religions or secular belief systems are represented. No part of the display could promote adherence to a particular religion.

Educators would also be authorized to teach children about the “traditional celebrations in winter” and offer greetings such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Kwanzaa”.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, has said the proposal is largely based on a Texas law that has been upheld in court. He said he was confident that the law would be upheld by the courts if legal challenges from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) materialized. The ACLU typically frowns on religious symbols being placed in public schools and government buildings.

Wisconsin School District Sets New Christmas Music Policy

Wisconsin School District Sets New Christmas Music Policy

One of the most reported stories in the war on Christmas during 2013 has come to a quiet conclusion. The Wausau School District famously censored traditional Christmas carols resulting in the disbanding of school music groups and a huge community uproar over the issue last October. The school district superintendent came under intense scrutiny for a broad decision limiting religious-themed music from public concerts by school groups.

After months of contentious and visible debate in the media locally and nationwide the Wausau School District finally decided on a policy that removes school administration from the decision process. Music teachers and the community will now collaborate on music selection.

“It wasn’t so much an administration deciding,” said Board President Michelle Schaefer. “It was the music teachers planning and deciding and really making their own concerts.”

A district-wide community board will also meet with music departments at least once a year to make sure everyone works together.

Keep an eye tuned to this school district next season. The next time you hear “O Come All Ye Faithful” fall from the lips of a high school choir group you can bet a letter will be sent to the school district from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is also based in Wisconsin.

    Massachusetts School Committee Rejects Community Vote for Christmas

    Massachusetts School Committee Rejects Community Vote for Christmas

    The fight in Norwood, Massachusetts continues. Despite a vote of 76 percent in favor of calling the holiday vacation “Christmas Break” on school calendars the local school committee insists the name change will not happen. The referendum vote was non-binding and at a meeting this week the school committee rejected the call to acknowledge the vote, according to The Blaze.

    Courtney Rau Rogers, chairwoman of the School Committee and one of the three members who have repeatedly voted in favor of winter recess, said she is not budging on her stance. She said the school calendar is a simple document to tell when the school is in session, but it is not designed to promote any religious philosophy.

    “Christmas is still listed on our school calendar,” Rau Rogers said. “It’s a federal holiday. It’s just no longer the name of the break we have at the end of the calendar year,”

    She noted that 26 different languages are spoken in the schools and that the children belong to many different faiths. “To change this language back at this point in time becomes exclusionary and, whether deliberately or not, promotes one particular religious world view over all the others.”

    Rau Rogers also said that with just 18 percent voter turnout, the vote on the nonbinding referendum could hardly be considered overwhelming support for the measure.

    But committee member Paul Samargedlis, who has repeatedly voted in favor of Christmas recess, believes the board is obligated to listen to the people.

    “The way I look at it is simple: No one asked us to change the language in the first place,” he said. “There was no outcry. There was no one saying, ‘Change it.’ Some committee members took it upon themselves. But now the town has spoken pretty strongly in favor of changing it back.”

    There are many Christians who see a shift in language about Christmas — “holiday cards” and “holiday trees” are oft-cited examples — as evidence of a “War on Christmas.” The Norwood School Committee is no stranger to being drawn into that argument. Several years ago, it voted to remove a nativity scene from the lawn of Balch Elementary School in South Norwood.

    “We had a manger on that lawn for 70 to 80 years,” said Helen Abdallah Donohue, a town selectwoman who voted to put the nonbinding referendum on Monday’s ballot and supports returning to the original Christmas language. “We had 700 signatures in support of it and the whole town wanted it, but the School Committee voted against it. We had to give up on it.”

    Theresa McNulty, who has been the driving force behind the effort to persuade the committee to return to the original language, said that those who say the new language is more inclusive are using it as a cover.“They will say they wanted to do it for diversity, and all that kind of talk, but this is just part of the movement in our country to demote Christianity,” she said.

    Clearly this is yet ANOTHER case of a local school authority unfamiliar with the nature of Christmas as recognized by the U.S. Federal government. Christmas was never set up as a religious holiday in the United States. It came about way back in 1870 as an answer to federal workers’ complaints that they did not get the day off like their private sector counterparts did. In establishing the holiday the United States government established Christmas as a secular observance. That many hold it sacred just happens to be a coincidence that causes great confusion to this day.

      South Carolina Christmas Bill Advances

      South Carolina Christmas Bill Advances

      Another southern state has a Merry Christmas bill in the works. The South Carolina Education Committee advanced Tuesday a bill allowing schools to display scenes and symbols associated with winter holidays. The bill is intended to protect schools and other public institutions from being sued for displaying or acknowledging Christmas.

      Under the bill, a religious icon such as a nativity scene must be either paired with a secular symbol or grouped with at least one other religion’s symbol. Supporters say a Christmas tree qualifies as a secular.

      The bill also specifies that staff and students can greet each other with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukah.”

      Rep. Bill Sandifer says his bill does not violate the separation of church and state. American Civil Liberties Union state director Victoria Middleton says she believes it does and calls the bill unnecessary.

      The bill is similar to the Merry Christmas Bill first passed in Texas last year and since adopted in various forms by several U.S. states.

      Town Overrides School Board to Name Christmas Break

      Town Overrides School Board to Name Christmas Break

      It wasn’t even a close vote. 76 percent of voters in Norwood, Massachusetts said the school board was wrong to change the school calendars. The measure calls for the public school vacation week currently named “Winter Recess” to be renamed as “Christmas Recess.”

      The committee renamed the winter break period as “Winter Recess” two years ago. Jim Drummey and Theresa McNulty of Norwood were unhappy with the committee’s decision and led the push to get the resolution on the ballot after an effort to rename the vacation week failed in May of last year.

      “We think there is a movement in our country to demote Christianity and Christmas is the name of a Christian feast day,” McNulty told local media shortly before the vote.

      The current school calendar does not reference Christmas, only “Winter Recess.”

      “We’re not excluding anybody, of course you want diversity, of course you want to respect all religions, but the only one that’s getting disrespected right now is Christianity,” said Drummey.

      Norwood School Superintendent James Hayden downplayed the battle over the naming of the vacation week.

      “This is not a fight about Christmas. We acknowledge it. It’s about being representative for everyone. I hope we can get beyond being hung up on labels,” said Hayden.

      Massachusetts Town Fights Over Christmas on School Calendar

      Massachusetts Town Fights Over Christmas on School Calendar

      Both the Washington Times and The Blaze tell the story today of Norwood, Massachusetts and the fight against a school district changing school calendars from showing “Christmas break” to “Winter break”.

      It is one of the oldest skirmishes in the war on Christmas: The school board says the new title is more inclusive, which local parents interpret as an attack on Christmas and Christian faith.

      Local activist Theresa McNulty thinks the School Committee’s decision to rename Christmas recess to winter recess is indicative of a larger problem in the United States.

      “We think there is a movement in our country to demote Christianity and Christmas is the name of a Christian feast day,” McNulty said. “Christmas is the name of a national holiday. They changed the name of a national holiday to winter recess, and that offended us.”

      The school district claims it is about much more than Christmas.

      “The motivation for the change is if we designate a week and a half vacation for one holiday, we were giving the message that we are holding that holiday as greater than other holidays on the calendar,” said School Committee member John Badger, who originally proposed the change to winter recess.

      Superintendent James Hayden noted Christmas is listed on the school calendar, as are a number of other religious holidays from various faiths listed.

      “This is not a fight about Christmas. We acknowledge it. It’s about being representative for everyone,” Hayden said. “I hope we can get beyond being hung up on labels.”

      Lousiana Newest State to Pursue Christmas Bill

      Lousiana Newest State to Pursue Christmas Bill

      Christmas and Hanukkah should be celebrated freely at public schools in Louisiana without fear of punishment, according to a state lawmaker from Shreveport, who plans to file legislation to ensure citizens understand their rights during the winter holidays.

      State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Republican, said Thursday he will file a so-called “Merry Christmas” bill during the 2014 legislative session.

      The bill closely mirrors legislation passed into law in Texas this year, which allowed public school staff and students to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah — by wearing festive garb, verbalizing greetings and holding events — “as long as more than one religion is represented and a secular symbol such as a reindeer or snowman is displayed.”

      The Texas law also allows school districts to “educate students about the history of traditional winter.”

      “There is a lot of misperception about what the First Amendment actually allows,” said Seabaugh. “Anti-Christian groups, like the (American Civil Liberties Union), want everyone to believe that traditional Christian symbols like nativity scenes and saying ‘Merry Christmas’ are never allowed. That is absolutely not the case.”

      He added the legislation would not actually change the law in any real way, since these kinds of celebrations and displays are already allowed, but would instead put the Supreme Court ruling “in state law so there an be a level of comfort within Louisiana public systems” and “to let them know that what they’re trying to do is okay.”

      In response, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman said her group has long been at the forefront of the fight to protect free speech, which includes “protecting Americans from government-imposed religion, because the practice of religion belongs in our houses of worship and our homes.”

      The Texas law only applies to “winter holidays” and specifically mentions only Christmas and Hanukkah.

      One Man Holding Up Oklahoma Merry Christmas Bill

      One Man Holding Up Oklahoma Merry Christmas Bill

      After months of consideration it is down to one man in Oklahoma in getting the Merry Christmas Bill there passed.

      A grass roots campaign to reach Senator John Ford of Oklahoma is underway as proponents of the Merry Christmas Bill there struggle to bring the legislation before the state Senate for a final vote. Senate Education Committee chairman Ford apparently does not see a need for the bill, frustrating the fellow Republicans who brought the popular legislation forward.

      With just a short period of time left in the legislative session to advance the bill this year supporters are asking citizens who approve the legislation to contact Ford. He can be reached at 918-914-9300 or 405-521-5634.

      Oklahoma is the 7th state to consider such a measure and it was learned late last week that legislators in Louisiana will be the 8th state to vote on such a bill. The bill has passed in every state so far presented with overwhelming majorities mostly driven by Republicans.

      The bill typically is written as a means to protect school districts from lawsuits. In recent years out-of-state organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation have sued on behalf of local residents over the observance of Christmas in public schools. From children singing carols to the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” secular groups have attacked schools as promoting religion as violation of the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution.

      It is widely viewed as a weak argument but school districts typically don’t have the resources to fight such frivolous law suits in court and end up complying with their demands, thus angering parents and disappointing kids. The simple legislation protects against such lawsuits and sets up basic rules for presenting Christmas in schools fairly.

      VA Hospital Negotiating to Censor Christmas Carols

      VA Hospital Negotiating to Censor Christmas Carols

      The flap over a public school choral group turned away from a Georgia VA Hospital at Christmas has taken a new twist. The Augusta Chronicle is reporting today that the hospital has a “caroling deal” in the works that would limit schools to singing only non-religious Christmas carols at the hospital.

      Five days before Christmas 2013 choral students from Alleluia Community School in Augusta were told they had to perform music other than what they prepared due to a five year old policy the hospital was enforcing that banned religious music in public areas. The story went viral as charges of first amendment abuses were levied in the media, resulting in a Congressional review of VA Christmas policies.

      Amongst the songs the group tried to perform were Silent Night, Joy to the World and O Come All Ye Faithful.

      “Military service veterans, male and female, represent people of all faiths,” hospital spokesman Brian Rothwell said in a statement. “It is out of respect for every faith that The Veterans Administration gives clear guidance on what ‘spiritual care’ is to be given and who is to give it.”

      Alleluia Community School Principal Dan Funsch said he was sad to hear that the Veterans Affairs hospital’s “spiritual care” grants holiday exemption only to Frosty, Rudolph and the secular characters that make up the 12 Days of Christmas.

      “This is not a religious proselytizing, evangelistic issue,” said Funsch, arguing that Christmas songs are broadcast during the holidays on area radio stations and in local retail outlets. “The song Joy to the World is as much a part of the holiday spirit as the Christmas tree.”

      Funsch said the peculiar part of the policy is its recent enforcement.

      Rothwell could not provide the date the VA’s ban on religious Christmas songs took effect, but Funsch said that in 2011 and 2012 his students were welcomed without hesitation at the Augusta VA’s Uptown campus as part of a yearly caroling the school does on its last day of classes before the holiday break.

      This year, however, when they arranged to sing at the medical center downtown, an official from the hospital’s volunteer services division told a high school senior that he and his classmates could perform only secular songs because of policy.

      Funsch said that because of time constraints and unfamiliarity with some of the songs provided by the VA, his high school students decided – on principle – to forgo this year’s caroling in hopes of finding a suitable location to sing their songs next year.

      The principal said his students were disappointed with the decision but glad to see their administrators stood up for what they felt was right.

      Funsch added that his middle school students were allowed to sing at Georgia Regents Medical Center with no problems.

      Other VA hospitals in other parts of the country reported other incidents of Christmas censorship, supposedly because of the policy. A Dallas area VA hospital refused Christmas cards from kids because they used the words “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You”.

      The Congressional VA Committee was besieged with complaints but the apparent “negotiations” limiting public performance of religious-themed Christmas music only points to more of the same in VA hospitals and threatens to broaden the issue and the controversy during the 2014 Christmas season.

      It is curious to us that two public institutions oppose each other in this instance — an interesting issue that will likely, someday, end up in front of a judge.

      Georgia Christmas Bill Closer to Passage

      Georgia Christmas Bill Closer to Passage

      Another step was taken this week in Georgia where house legislators overwhelmingly approved that state’s version of the Merry Christmas Bill, which would allow for the celebration of Christmas in Georgia public schools without fear of frivolous lawsuits. One final vote in the Senate is all that is needed before the bill would go to the governor for signing.

      The Georgia House voted 119-52 to approve Senate Bill 283 Tuesday, which would allow educators to use phrases like “Merry Christmas” in schools.

      The bill also allows teachers to display traditional religious and nonreligious holiday images and greetings, as long as at least two traditions are included.

      Schools may educate students about the history of “traditional winter celebrations” according to the legislation, as well as offer “traditional greetings” regarding those celebrations such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.”

      Whether the bill will become a law will depend on at least one more vote, as the House changed some of the language of the bill, and it must go back to the Senate for approval. The Senate’s initial vote on the bill passed 43-8 on February 4th.

      Tennessee House Passes Merry Christmas Bill

      Tennessee House Passes Merry Christmas Bill

      The Tennessee state House of Representatives, by an 84-4 tally, passed a measure allowing “Merry Christmas” in public schools and giving the go ahead to seasonal displays of Christmas celebration without the fear of lawsuits — similar to other bills in other states passed in the last year. The measure will now be taken up by the state senate next week.

      “I’m a real proponent of freedom of religion, but not a proponent of freedom from religion,” said the bill’s sponsor state Representative Andy Holt, a Republican from Dresden, who wore a Christmas-themed tie when the bill passed.

      The bill would seek to provide a legal basis to protect teachers from lawsuits when they wish students “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.” Teachers would also be allowed to teach about religious holidays in the classroom under the bill, which supporters say upholds the religious and free speech rights of educators.

      The bill also allows schools to display scenes or symbols associated with religious winter holidays, such as a menorah or a Christmas tree, if it is accompanied by a symbol or display of another religion or a secular scene or symbol.

      The bill has been dubbed the “Merry Christmas” measure in media reports.

      The Senate will consider a slightly amended House version of the bill it passed on February 24, with Holt adding language that said holiday greetings would not be limited to Christmas and Hanukkah but to other types of occasions as well.

      “We are just trying to make sure that nobody is to be excluded in this legislation. It doesn’t preclude any other traditional winter celebrations,” Holt said.

      If the Senate passes the bill, it goes to the desk of Republican Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.