New York Schools Again Focus on Nativity Fight

A Department of Education policy barring Nativity scenes from the city’s public schools could be the focus of a new debate at City Hall.

A City Council member of Queens, Tony Avella, is calling on the department to amend its holiday display policy to allow Nativity scenes in schools.

The rule has withstood judicial scrutiny, with a federal appeals court upholding it in 2006. A Queens mother, Andrea Skoros, sued the city in 2002, arguing the ban on crèches discriminated against Roman Catholics.

The Department of Education allows Christmas trees, menorahs, and the star and crescent, an Islamic symbol, to be displayed at public schools.

“We only allow secular symbols and that decision has been upheld by the courts,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Marge Feinberg, said. The rules require the holiday symbols to be displayed together, or not at all, she said.

Mr. Avella said the policy is unfair because it treats religions differently. He said menorahs are religious symbols, while Christmas trees are not.

“Since you allow the others, this is appropriate as well,” Mr. Avella, who is Roman Catholic, said.

He is scheduled to unveil his resolution on the policy on Sunday at City Hall, where he will appear with representatives from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The general counsel for the American Jewish Congress and an expert on religion and the law, Marc Stern, said the Department of Education is in a difficult position because no matter what its policy, it is sure to attract lawsuits and community opposition.

A council member of Brooklyn who is an Orthodox Jew, Simcha Felder, said he would vote against the resolution and is opposed to allowing any religious symbols in schools, including menorahs.

“Our founding fathers had great foresight and understanding on the separation of church and state,” he said. “It should remain that way.”

From the New York Sun, June 19, 2007

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