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Fayetteville community disputes district’s holiday policy

December 30, 2018

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Christmas trees and other holiday decorations are permitted in Fayetteville schools, as long as the displays have an educational purpose and support an environment “inclusive” of all students and employees, according to the superintendent.

Some, however, perceive the school district as having an outright ban on Christmas trees, a notion expressed by two community members who spoke at a recent school board meeting.

Superintendent John L Colbert issued a memo to principals Nov. 29 in which he reminded them of district policy 6.14, which states no religious belief or non-belief should be promoted by the district or its employees.

“When we choose to decorate or celebrate any specific tradition, be it the Christian Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or any other tradition, we run the risk of creating an environment where a student does not feel comfortable or included,” Colbert wrote.

Staff members should consider “creating an environment within your building that is inclusive” of all students and staff members, he wrote.

Any holiday-related displays must be related to the curriculum in some way, Colbert said.

Fayetteville is the only one of Northwest Arkansas’ biggest four school districts that put conditions on the display of holiday decorations, according to officials with those districts.

“We do not have a policy regarding the celebration of holidays in our buildings,” said Leslee Wright, director of communications for the Bentonville School District. “Typically we leave it to our principals and ask them to be mindful of all cultures.”

Springdale has trees in “most, if not all” of its 31 school buildings, plus the administration building, according to Rick Schaeffer, director of communications.

Ila Campbell, a longtime Fayetteville resident and retired teacher, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she came away with the impression that Christmas trees were banned from the schools after speaking with Colbert earlier this month. She was dismayed to hear it, and questioned why the district was doing this now based on a religion policy last revised in 1994.

“The White House, our national and state capitols, shopping malls, downtown Fayetteville, people’s yards, people’s homes — everywhere you look is filled with lighted and decorated trees,” Campbell said, during time allotted for public comment the board meeting.

She views the district’s policy as a step too far toward political correctness. She always sought to create a safe and inclusive environment in her classroom when she was a teacher, but said those words have been “hijacked by the politically correct culture, whose stated goal of inclusion is actually achieved through the exclusion of any ideas, opinions and perspectives that don’t fit a certain agenda.”

Lynn Hulette, another Fayetteville parent, also addressed the board. She pointed out Christmas is a federal holiday and most Americans support celebration of Christmas. The district’s crackdown on Christmas decorations is divisive, she said.

Nick Fish, president of the New Jersey-based American Atheists, said while the district’s heart appears to be in the right place, any restrictions on Christmas trees and wreaths isn’t a common-sense approach.

“I don’t think there will be too many atheists upset about the secular side of the holiday season,” Fish said. “Things like trees and Santa Claus and reindeer don’t have anything to do with religion, really.”

The religion in schools policy states the district should encourage all students and staff members to appreciate religious freedom and tolerate each other’s religious views. Holidays that have a religious and a secular basis may be observed and taught — but not celebrated — in the public schools, according to the policy.

Religious symbols may be used as a teaching aid or resource provided they are displayed “as an example of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday and are temporary in nature,” the policy states.

One example of that is at McNair Middle School, which did a door-decorating contest this month. Classes dressed up their doors to represent winter holiday celebrations in different countries around the world.

Carol Huneycutt’s gifted and talented class dressed its door to represent Austria. The decorations include a Christmas tree and a wreath, both made of paper. There also are explanations of the Advent wreath and the history of the Christmas carol “Silent Night,” which was written in Austria.

The Christmas tree issue also caught the attention of some state legislators.

The Arkansas Legislative Prayer Caucus sent a five-page letter, signed by 24 legislators, to Colbert and board members recently, stating that by excluding Christmas from winter decorations, the school is engaging in a practice which is hostile to religion, which is prohibited, according to the caucus. The letter cited Supreme Court cases to support the caucus’ claim.

“Christmas is a time for joy, and parties and decorations are ways to express that joy,” the letter states. “But Christmas is not the same if Christ is excluded. Including baby Jesus in a manger, or the Angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth, and/or the three wise men bearing gifts together with Frosty and Santa would be a way to avoid showing hostility to religion.”

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com

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