'HOLIDAY WARS' HIGHLIGHT NEED FOR SCHOOL CHOICE
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.
[November 16, 2006]
[Hollywood Investigator.com] While the First Amendment's Establishment Clause forbids government from
promoting religion, that same amendment's Free Exercise Clause protects
its open practice. The tension between these clauses is most evident
during the "holiday season." How government resolves that tension
is often confused, contradictory and discriminatory. And while it
may be the opposite in the Bible Belt, here on the coasts, perhaps motivated
by sensitivity to minority faiths, the bias is often against Christians.
On May 20, 1998, Catholic
League president William Donahue testified before the US Civil Rights
Commission that in "Manhattan Beach, California, a public school removed
a Christmas tree from school property after a rabbi objected that the tree
was a religious symbol; however, the school allowed the display of a Star
of David. ... in Mahopac, New York, Boy Scout students were barred from
selling holiday wreaths at a fundraiser, even though a wreath is a secular
Hanukkah gifts, however, were allowed to be sold at the school's own fundraiser."
Yet government does not consistently
regard Jewish symbols as secular. Donahue adds, "I confronted an
attorney for New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew regarding the practice
of banning crèches in the schools while allowing menorahs. At first, she cited the 1989 County of Allegheny
v. ACLU decision to buttress her case, but when I pointed out that
that decision undermined her case -- making the argument that the high court
declared a menorah to be a religious symbol, not a secular one -- she quickly
retreated. Such ignorance strikes me as willful."
Adding to the confusion,
US Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito is unconvinced that menorahs --or
crèches -- must be banned from state property. On July 1, 2005,
the Washington Post reported that, while on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals,
Alito "wrote for the majority in 1997 in finding that Jersey City officials
did not violate the Constitution with a holiday display that included a
creche, a menorah and secular symbols of the Christmas season."
But despite Alito's opinion,
in a lawsuit against New York City's Department of Education, Andrea Skoros
alleged that her sons were "coerced" into coloring menorahs at school,
were taught the story of Hanukkah but not Christmas, and that their schools
displayed menorahs, dreidels, Kwanzaa candelabras, wreaths, bells, Santa
Claus, snowmen, and Islam's star and crescent (for Ramadan). Skoros
requested that Nativity scenes be added to include Christianity.
School lawyers argued that, unlike menorahs and Islam's star and crescent,
Nativity scenes did not represent a historical event. Newsday's Wil
Cruz quoted Skoros as saying that her sons were "coerced to accept Judaism
Islam at the expense of their Catholic beliefs." On February 18,
2004, Brooklyn Federal Judge Charles Sifton upheld the holiday displays,
ruling that Nativity scenes were "purely religious" whereas the others
had "significant secular connotations."
Sifton's ruling illustrates
an ominous Establishment Clause loophole. If government can declare
some religious symbols and stories to be secular and historical, and others
to be "purely religious," then government can allow favored religions to
circumvent the Establishment Clause -- much like African slaves' rights were
circumvented by declaring them to be "not persons."
One solution may be to declare
that symbols that are in any way religious are religious, whatever else
they may be, and hence treated the same as all other religious symbols. But that still leaves government in charge of interpreting the rules, and
if government were an honest broker, and men were angels, we wouldn't have
so many contentious school board elections or lawsuits to begin with.
A better solution may be
to avoid such conflicts altogether by reinforcing "separation of church
and state" with "separation of education and state." School vouchers
would be a start, empowering low-income parents to choose whether to send
their children to a religious school, or multi-religious school, or secular
school. Right now, parents sending children to private schools must
pay twice; taxes for public school and tuition for private school. That's hardly fair.
Those opposing school vouchers
argued that they don't want their taxes promoting religion. Andrea
Skoros may say that public schools are no guarantee that that won't happen.
In private life one can celebrate -- or
not -- as one wishes, and protest or boycott businesses one feels slighted
by. You vote with your wallet. Let's extend that vote to low-income
parents seeking to educate their children.