"I'm a good old Baptist girl from East Texas, and we trick-or-treated everywhere. No one ever thought of it as a religious issue," says Coppell elementary school principal Andra Penney.
But, Penney says, she has children from 18 different countries in her school. While some of their parents are merely curious about Halloween, others want nothing to do with it. And there are evangelical Christians who object to it. "We've really wrestled with it," Penney says. "Our district has taken the stance that we'd rather steer away from Halloween and celebrate the harvest."
Penney uses the month to emphasize imagination and the difference between make-believe and reality. Meanwhile, in one first-grade class, a teacher used a skeleton to teach children about bones. In another class, the teacher built a cave, and the children learned about bats. "Never once did they talk about Halloween," Penney says.
At another Coppell elementary school, the kindergarteners dressed up as animals the first week of October and paraded around the school--but no one mentioned Halloween.
"They do all the same stuff, but they don't use the word 'Halloween,'" says Karen Miles Fezzey, the mother of a Coppell kindergartener. And that's fine with her.
Her 5-year-old son won't go trick-or-treating, but she'll take him to a local Halloween festival with rides and candy. Even that's a big step, because Fezzey didn't celebrate Halloween as a child. "We were forbidden to do any Halloween activities," she says. "In the Bible Belt, that's very common. I remember having friends who would do Halloween activities at school, and my mother would bring other crafts so we wouldn't cut out witch hats or anything."
That "opt-out" strategy has worked well in the past but may be starting to unravel. In the recent Nashville case, Haynes says, the parent who hosted an alternative party in a classroom was told she wasn't allowed to advertise the party publicly--for fear too many other children would choose to attend.
"This has become a time when communities and schools struggle," Haynes says.
Activists argue that celebrating Halloween violates the Constitution's establishment clause on the separation of church and state. Their argument: If we can't have Jesus in December, why can you have witches and Celtic symbols?
Says Haynes: "Good try, but it doesn't make it legally, because schools have long celebrated Halloween as a secular holiday.
"And if a school system does something because a religious group pressures it, that does raise the question of whether government is preferring one religion over another," Haynes says.
But even if a group of parents did manage to pressure a school district to get rid of Halloween celebrations, administrators could legitimately say they merely reworked their curriculum--and a court would not challenge them, Haynes says.
Ultimately, the controversy isn't even about Halloween, he suggests. "It's a bigger story," says Haynes. "It's rarely about whether the bus driver handed out candy dressed in a costume or whether the teacher read 'The Witch of Blackbird Pond.' It's about whose schools are these."