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NYC schools ban Nativity scenes but allow Jewish, Islamic symbols

By The Associated Press


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NEW YORK — New York is discriminating against Christian students by allowing Islamic and Jewish holiday symbols to be displayed in public schools while banning Nativity creches, a Catholic organization suing the city charged yesterday.

"All we're asking for the city of New York to do is to treat Catholics the same way they do Jews and Muslims," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. "This is nothing but pure, unadulterated religious discrimination."

The Thomas More Law Center argues in the lawsuit that the Department of Education holiday policy is unconstitutional because it permits Hanukkah menorahs and the Islamic star and crescent as secular symbols but prohibits scenes of Jesus' birth in a manger as religious.

The lawsuit, filed on Dec. 9 in Brooklyn federal court, was brought on behalf of Andrea Skoros, a Catholic League member who has two sons at the Edith K. Bergtraum School in Queens. It lists the department, schools Chancellor Joel Klein and principal Sonya Lupion as defendants.

The department's policy "endorses and promotes the religions of Judaism and Islam, conveys the impermissible message of disapproval of Christianity and coerces students, including the two minor sons of (the plaintiff), to accept the Jewish and Islamic religions," the lawsuit claims.

The law center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and promoting the religious freedom of Christians, is seeking a court injunction against the policy and nominal damages of $1 or more, which would allow it to recover court costs and legal fees.

Richard Thompson, lead counsel for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based law center, said the department issued a memo encouraging teachers to take to school religious symbols that represent the Islamic and Jewish religions but made no mention of Christian symbols.

The policy does allow Christmas trees, which are considered secular, Thompson said.

The education department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

But spokeswoman Margie Feinberg said the school's policy adhered to the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state.

Thompson said the menorahs and displays of the star and crescent are religious in nature and not secular, as education officials contend.

"The specific policy allows public schools in the city of New York to put on religious symbols of other religions but specifically refuses to allow Christians to put on and display a Nativity scene," he said.

Donohue said he wanted the schools to display all religious symbols.

"The intolerant way to resolve it is to ban everybody equally," he said. "I want the tolerant way, which is to allow Catholics to compete with Muslims and Jews and have our religious symbols in there for a short period of time."

Meanwhile, in the nearby suburb of Yonkers, N.Y., decorations specific to one holiday — even nonreligious ones like Christmas trees — have been banned from public schools.

Interim Superintendent Angelo Petrone directed officials last week to remove all decorations that go beyond a generic "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings." That included Hanukkah menorahs as well as Christmas trees.

Holiday assemblies featuring religious songs, poems and reports on holidays will still be permitted, said district spokesman Eric Schoen.

He said Petrone, who was principal at Yonkers Middle-High School until last month, had required all decorations there to be religion-neutral and when he became interim superintendent, he extended the order to the entire Yonkers school district.

Marla Hurban, a member of the Yonkers PTA Council, said teachers scrapped lesson plans involving holiday decorations and took down bulletin boards loaded with children's artwork.

The First Amendment permits public schools to teach about world religions as long as one religion is not promoted above others. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said overreactions "come out of confusion about what the First Amendment requires and the refusal by schools to address religion properly throughout the school year."

Amanda Pendleton, who has a daughter in fifth grade, told The Journal News that when word of the order began to spread, "Anybody who heard it thought it was a joke at first; they couldn't believe it. Then they had to literally tear everything off the walls."


How to handle religious holidays in public schools
By Charles Haynes Upholding the First Amendment is key to solving the yearly 'December dilemma.'  12.09.01

Public schools and Christmas: the season wrapped in red tape
Principal's memo stating that 'secular' language should be used when referring to the season renews perennial debate about religious holidays, public schools.  12.21.01