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Have Yourself A Merry Little “Winter Break”

The+illuminated+tree+of+books+in+the+library+spreads+cheer+to+hardworking+students.
The illuminated tree of books in the library spreads cheer to hardworking students.

The illuminated tree of books in the library spreads cheer to hardworking students.

The illuminated tree of books in the library spreads cheer to hardworking students.

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For many, the day after Thanksgiving is the official beginning of the holiday season. Local radio stations begin their continuous carols, Barrack’s Road puts up its decorations, and the smells of baking cookies, pine needles, and cinnamon scented candles start to fill the air.

But there is one other thing that the holiday season inevitably brings to Western Albemarle High School, and it’s not the daily hope for a snow day. Rather, it’s the controversy surrounding an issue that has been around for years – how various religious holidays should be represented on school property.

Thanks to the Leadership class, during the holiday season Western does not in any way lack themed activities. There’s Angel Tree, Door Decorating, the Tacky Sweater Contest, and new this year, Kinda Karoling. Historically, these have all been well received by students, but this year there seems to be more questioning of how much influence religion can have on these activities, and where that line is to be drawn.

“From the Leadership class perspective, we just try to follow along with what the administration is trying to support, which is the Albemarle County Public School policy,” said Leadership teacher Mrs. Miracle. “In terms of the door decorating and caroling activity, we’re just following the policies that we’ve been following for years in Leadership…In some ways it’s almost easier to be overly strict than to try and tread this line when it’s so hard to know what the line is.”

Before the first ever Kinda Karoling event this year, there was confusion (and in some cases annoyance) when many “classic” holiday songs were not permitted due to their religious connotations.

“For the Kinda Caroling, there was a list of what had been done in the past–songs that didn’t have a religious connotation. And this group of songs was easy, because they were unbiased, they were neutral,” said Mr. Bonham, explaining the rationale behind the decision.  “So unless we had a full range of all of the religions that would be able to be promoted or sung, then it was one of those situations in which we honed in on the ones that we knew were going to be neutral, and that’s how we ended up laying out which ones students would be able to sing.”

But many students are still left wondering, “Why can’t we include religious symbols, such as Christmas trees and Menorahs, in schools during holiday time?” So let’s delve further into the issue.

Students are more than welcome to practice their religion however they like in schools; however, when they are participating in a school sponsored activity, such as what Leadership puts on, they must follow the Albemarle County Public School policy. This policy, which is available for anyone to view on their website, states, “In considering the role or the absence of the role of religion in the Albemarle County Public Schools, it is important to remember that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools. It is the advancement or inhibition of religion that is prohibited…There is nothing unconstitutional about the use of religious subjects or materials in public schools as long as they are presented as part of a religiously neutral program of education.”

More specifically, it is the county’s practice to “ensure that the recognition of religious holidays be a valid educational experience and ensure that classroom discussions and other activities concerning religious holidays are accurate in content and objectively presented to foster understanding and respect and not to promote or inhibit the religion being studied.”

However, while it is the county policy not to advance religion in schools, much of how this policy is implemented in schools is actually left up to the administration’s own interpretation of it. So, how should a public school best go about protecting the First Amendment rights of students while still supporting the separation of church and state?

“From an administrative perspective, most people tend to fall on the conservative side, to make sure that they’re abiding closely by them [the ACPS policies], rather than risking offending others,” said principal Mr. Bonham. “Even if students say it [religious celebration in school] doesn’t bother them, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. It can be very frustrating, very divisive, and people ask, ‘what’s the big deal?’ But, the reality is that we all have guidance we have to follow, and we have to make decisions that aren’t in any way making anyone else feel inferior, or not supported. In fourth grade, I was the head elf in the school play, and if you look at how many [school board policies] we had twenty years ago, the number has certainly increased, because of more concerns about equality.”

Lawsuits, for example, can arise when public schools don’t follow strict policies. Stratechuk v. Board of Education (2009) and Florey v. Sioux Falls School District (1980) were two of many cases that began when parents and students were disgruntled by their school’s holiday policies, making it clear why a school board would want to lean to the conservative side.

“I think we should just embrace all the festivities,” said senior Mary Larson, “I don’t see the problem with having a Christmas song, if you also include a Hanukkah song. Today there was even a Hanukkah song on the announcements, so why can’t we sing a Christmas song? I don’t actually know if there are Kwanzaa songs, but if so, we could sing those, too.”

Senior Lucie Taylor, on the other hand, raised an opposing point. “I don’t know how all public schools handle it, but I assume there’s supposed to be a national standard of not bringing religion into public schools. So I think it’s correct for them to not promote any religion, majority or minority. We live in a place with a very obviously tilted majority- even compared to surrounding counties- there’s a very certain type of student body, and it wouldn’t be fair to minority groups if we just did Christmas, or even if we tried to work in Hanukkah a little bit, too. It’s the school’s responsibility to look out for minorities.”

WAHS students of other religions also expressed ambivalence on the topic.

“I wouldn’t be offended, but I think there would be a certain extent of specific holiday representation that would be unacceptable,” said junior Matt Mandell.  “If there were Christmas trees all around the school, for example, I wouldn’t be sad or offended or anything, but I still feel like that would be kind of weird. I have no problem with how things are right now.”

Conversely, freshman Gabby  Eng commented, “As a Jew I would not be at all offended.”

But just because some students support representing religious holidays in school doesn’t make it okay.

“It’s a public school, so even if you take a poll, and find out that all thirty or even one hundred or one thousand students are okay with [religious holidays in schools], you still have to be fair,” Bonham said.  “It’s a slippery slope…no matter what you give as response to this, there’s going to be conflicting opinions about it, because it’s personal. So I always have to go back to the county policies, and make my decisions based on what the guiding documents tell me. But none of it is one hundred percent perfect – sometimes it becomes a gray area.”

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