Christmas trees and Muslim symbols don't belong in public schools

The decision to reinstate the Christmas tree in Bellview Elementary School was in my view unfortunate. Everyone applauds the value of teaching our children brotherhood, compassion and generosity. But teaching generosity in the public schools should not rest on religious themes.

Separation of church and state is an intrinsic and indispensable principle of American liberty. That separation begins with keeping religion out of the public schools — especially elementary schools where children are first acculturated to their community environment. It is true that the Supreme Court ruled that the Christmas tree is not part of Christian theology, and therefore not barred from public schools by law. But that does not alter the fact that the Christmas tree is a symbol of Christmas, intended, as is Santa Claus, to attract children to the theology. The Supreme Court defines the minimum rights that minorities can enforce in the courts. As a community, we should maximize, not minimize, minority rights.

American minority groups, including Muslims, Hindus, Jews and atheists, find it hard to prevent the assimilation of their children into the majority religious culture, and the children's accompanying loss of identification with their own religious traditions. It is of critical importance to keep the majority religion — and all the cultural and traditional children's enticements associated with it, including Christmas trees — out of the public schools.

An American town with a Muslim majority would not be justified in erecting a "Giving Crescent and Stars" display in a public elementary school during Ramadan — which some non-Muslim parents might find objectionable. It is just as inappropriate for the Christian majority at Bellview to insist on its religious symbols being displayed.

The answer is not to include the symbols of other religions. It is not a matter of equal time for all religions. What is required is the separation, the exclusion of religion from public schools. Christians who want prayer and Christmas trees in the public schools should learn to do what minorities have always had to do — teach their religious principles in their homes, churches and private institutions.

The argument that the majority wishes should prevail misses the point that in American democracy, where the majority rules, individual liberties in the Bill of Rights — including freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of church and state — are for the benefit of the minorities, to protect them from the majority.

In his Ashland Daily Tidings column (Dec. 12, "A gift from the giving tree"), Jeff Golden was enamored of a student's statement that "It's ridiculous how we're making everything so separate." No, it is not ridiculous. It is of fundamental importance, because, although we are a united people — a community — we are also a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in a land of individual liberty, where our differences — those things that distinguish, that separate us — should be respected, not denounced and not trivialized.

There are limits to the value of community dialogue and harmony — which are not of much help when it comes to protecting minority rights in the storm of aroused public opinion. And nothing sets off American public opinion more than an effort to limit their religious traditions. The Bellview principal's initial impulse — to remove the tree and thus to respect the line between religious symbols and public schools — was the right one.

It's too bad that the children and the community were deprived of witnessing the courage of someone unafraid to take an unwavering stand for the protection of minorities against a tide of public furor.

Ralph Temple is a civil liberties activist expressing a personal opinion.

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