It was the snowflake that broke the reindeer's back. When her children's school forbade the wearing of Halloween costumes, Lisa Lowry was mum. When her children said they were discouraged from saying "Merry Christmas" lest they offend someone who doesn't observe the holiday, she was frustrated. But when her flute-playing daughter came home with music for the middle school December band concert and it included a medley of Hanukkah music--but the only nod to Christmas was "Let it Snow" and "Winter Wonderland," Lisa Lowry knew she had to do something.

"It was political correctness to the point of ridiculousness," Lowry, a mother of three, said. "I was just getting tired of it." Apparently, other parents in her town of Scarborough, Maine, were tired of it, too.

"For me, it is not about religion," said Doreen Duval-Flaherty, another mother who joined Lowry to help bring Christmas back to Scarborough public schools. Duval-Flaherty describes herself as spiritual but not religious and says she doesn't even attend church except to see friends' children in Christmas pageants. "It's a free speech and fairness issue. If you live in fear of offending the kid sitting next to you, you will never get to know them or understand them and you won't be able to celebrate their culture as well as yours."

When Lowry, Duval-Flaherty, and several others took their concerns to school administrators, they received support from a spectrum of local parents, including those who are not Christian, or even religious. After several meetings during the fall, the parents are happy with the results. A rabbi and a minister were invited to an assembly about the December holidays, children now read Christmas as well as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa books, and Christmas trees are now welcome additions to school decorations that have long included a menorah and a Kwanzaa symbols.

Lowry and other Scarborough parents have since received supportive calls and letters from parents as far away as Texas, California and Australia. Their website, www.bringbackchristmas.org, has received more than 4,500 hits. Many supporters have described themselves as secular or religious--but not Christian. One Jewish man from New Jersey wrote to say, "God bless you all."

Keeping Christmas in the classroom has long been a crusade among conservative Christians, and every year outraged Religious Right leaders jump up and down over real and perceived Christmas slights. (Jerry Falwell, for example, this year dubbed the situation the "The impending death of Christmas" and dumped the blame on "the left" and other "spiritual Grinches of our nation," including the American Civil Liberties Union.)

But the ACLU says it isn't hatching a plot to stamp out Christmas. In 1995, the group endorsed a joint statement on religion in the public schools that was signed by Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh groups. Last year, they filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Christian student punished for distributing candy canes with religious messages. "That makes it all the more ironic that some conservative Christian groups are trying to paint the picture that the ACLU is trying to steal Christmas," says Paul Silva, an ACLU spokesman.

But this year the effort to keep "Christmas-ey" Christmas in the schools is being pushed by a new crop of people, and not just conservative Christians-perhaps because the country has reached the Christmas Tipping Point. It seems that some school districts, in an effort to survive December - a month that includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, and occasionally Ramadan - have gone so far toward political correctness that Christmas has been stripped of the J-word (that would be Jesus) and turned into a consumer gala of candy canes and toys. As a result, even parents who are not Christian or in any way religiously observant have noticed how strange this is, and joined their Christian counterparts to say "enough:"

  • In suburban Chicago, parents who said they seldom attend church, joined with devout Christian parents to fight (and win) a ban on radio stations with Christmas music in school buses.

  • In Kirkland, Wash. the cancellation of a performance of "A Christmas Carol," the Charles Dickens classic, partly out of concern it would offend non-Christmas students, was protested by a spectrum of parents. They pointed out that the play's only religious reference was Tiny Tim's "God bless us, everyone." The controversy then drew the ridicule of a Seattle Times columnist who describes himself as agnostic. Another agnostic wrote the paper to say, "[p]ut on a religious play for cripes sake! The children will be better for it."
  • In Denver, church members weren't allowed to sing Christmas carols and hymns during the city's annual parade. As a result, they got phone calls and letters of support from thousands of people, including secular folks who seldom see the inside of a church.
  • In Bradenton, Fla., a school did away with all the usual December music-no "Joy to the World" or "Little Town of Bethlehem," not even "Frosty the Snowman"--and instead had the children sing patriotic songs. Parents--from various religions-objected, but the concert went forward with no holiday references.
  • In Maplewood, N.J., Christian, Jewish, and secular parents united to protest a ban on religious Christmas music from high school band and choir concerts. Even instrumental versions of Christmas carols and hymns were cut, drawing rage from parents of various faiths and levels of religiosity who say they aren't about to allow Bach and Handel struck from their children's musical repertoire.
  • Meanwhile, the lawsuits are mounting. Last Friday, the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian advocacy group, said it had filed a suit against the Maplewood/South Orange school district claiming the ban discriminates against Christians. Similar suits were filed in Illinois over the radio music, and in Plano, Tex., where lawyers say the school district banned red and green napkins from a school party.

    In Maplewood, parents were so angry about the ban that some who'd never even attended a school board meeting before got involved. "I don't do this stuff, but to me this was so outrageous I had to do something," said Richard Lee Georget, a Maplewood parent who started a petition drive to restore Christmas music. Georget, who describes himself as a church-going Christian, has been encouraged by the community's response.

    Some Maplewood parents said it wasn't worry about religion being taught in the public schools that brought them to action. Tom Reingold, a musician and father of two children, was concerned music education was suffering. "So much great music was funded by the church or inspired by the church," he said. "You cannot take Bach out of music, any more than you can take an engine out of the car and still call it the real thing."

    But Reingold, who is Jewish, said he in no way advocates the teaching of religion in the classroom. "It really isn't the school's place," he said. "If enough people talk about how it is a crime to remove Christmas from the holiday concert then I am going to flop over to the other side and start supporting the ban because that would be promoting religion."

    Jennifer Crohn, a Maplewood-area mother who describes herself as a "moderately observant Reconstructionist" Jew, says she, too, is concerned that lobbing off all religion in December short-changes the children.

    "I think infringing heavy-handedly on the arts in the name of a secular ideal is a terrible move from an educational standpoint," she said. "I don't mean only that western classical music cannot be taught without reference to religious repertoire, but that expanding that repertoire to include music from a variety of religious traditions would have been an opportunity for kids to be exposed to cultures other than the dominant one."

    The anti-PC backlash may also spring from a fear of losing warm memories of Christmases past. "There is something special about Christmas," Georget said. "Maybe we talk a little differently to each other at this time, maybe there is more smiling. I think that's why it touched a chord with everybody, even people who are not religious. They may say "I am with you" if you want to ban prayer in school, but this is too far. You are taking something out that is so precious, that's so wonderful, that is so sweet."

    As president of the local school board, Brian O'Leary has had a front row seat during the Maplewood debate. He says music touched a nerve in the community, bringing many people out to school board meetings for the first time.

    "We have heard stories of people saying, `I am Jewish and I sang these songs when I was young, or I was Catholic and I really enjoyed learning about these other songs when I was young,'" he said. "They are hearkening back to something that was personally important to them, and that connection motivates them to get involved."

    But the board has to keep the district's policies in mind, and in this case, that means striking a balance between a song's religious content and its educational value.

    "It is easy to say I'd like to play holiday music, but which holiday music?" he said. "How do you write a policy that permits Handel's `Messiah,' but not `Silent Night?' The devil is in the details."

    One Maplewood alumnus, who remembers singing Hanukkah and Christmas songs in the high school choir, wrote on a community website bulletin board: "I am not a Christian, but I believe that beautiful music should be sung . . . .This is the season to do this, so why is there all this commotion[?]. If I did not have a toddler, I would be out there" protesting.

    The nostalgia for Christmas music extends to the radio as well. Parents in suburban Chicago were upset earlier this month when a school superintendent suddenly ordered school bus drivers to turn their radios off. "Why were they suppressing Christmas [music] and not the others? It wasn't equal," said Mindy Carlino, a self-described "occasional" churchgoer and mother of two. "I love all types of people and that is what I am trying to instill in my children. It just seems like Christmas is being shoved under the rug."

    Bruce Grelle, director of the Religion and Public Education Resource Center at California State University in Chico, Calif., says stripping Christmas of all but its most superficial aspects only reinforces media portrayal of December as a great time to buy stuff.

    "It becomes the shopping mall Christmas," Grelle said. "A student could come through discussion of Christmas in a public school and have no idea of its religious significance to Christianity. It has become a festival of consumerism."

    To teach children about the religious significance of the holiday - any holiday - is not only good for kids, it also happens to be perfectly legal - a fact, Grelle says, many teachers don't totally understand.

    "There is a crucial distinction between schools organizing religious devotion," he says "That is not permissible. But schools can include discussion about religious holidays and religious music in programs as long as it does not dominate."

    Joan Peppard Winograd, an attorney for the Anti-Defamation League who deals with conflicts from Virginia to Texas and Florida, says music "has always been the epicenter of the problem."

    "It's because kids bring home the song sheets or parents go to the concerts and they can see for themselves," she said. "Are there more Christmas songs? Are there more Hanukkah songs? Is there a balance?"

    There are resources available to help public school administrators, teachers and parents survive the December holidays. In 2002, the Freedom Forum began distributing "Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools" that outlines exactly what the law permits regarding religious discussion in the classroom. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, has an online guide, and the Allied Defense Fund, a Christian group, has contacted more than 40,000 schools to clarify the law as part of its second annual "Christmas Project."

    So why do so many school districts go so wrong?

    "Ignorance is probably still a big part of it," said Charles Haynes, a Freedom Forum scholar and co-author of "Finding Common Ground." "But I think the fear of offending is the biggest part of it. Even people who know better in public schools in terms of the First Amendment are afraid of stirring up their community and they take the path of least resistance. They say what's the easiest way to resolve this? Get rid of it."

    In Maplewood, Georget has hope that next Christmas will see religious music restored. He has been approached by lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center and the Allied Defense Fund, but says he worries aligning with them could be divisive. And for the most part, he has been encouraged by the ban's potential to actually unite Maplewood parents of all stripes.

    "We may not go to the same church - some of us may not go to church at all," he said. "But we are all parents."

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