Keep schools religion-neutral — but not religion-free

That season is coming up again. Some Jewish parents will complain about Christmas carols in the schools. Some Christian parents will complain about Chanukah songs in the schools. Some parents will complain about both.

In the meantime, heralding the season, the Los Altos school board sparked a huge controversy by initially banning Halloween ceremonies on grounds of church-state separation. The school board eventually reversed itself, but the interim dialogue was both entertaining and instructive.

Some parents said it was offensive to Christians to have their children engage in Halloween celebrations, which are pagan. Others opposed such celebrations because they deprecate the religious significance of Halloween, and would offend the 15,000 to 20,000 witches in the Bay Area.

There is also the strong rumor that some parents instigated the ban on Halloween in order to make fun of and scuttle the previous decision of the school board to make all school activities during this season "completely secular, with no tinge of a religious point of view," as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

If that was the stratagem, it worked. In reversing its ban against Halloween, the school board also reversed its ban against any religious reference. Halloween was just a stalking broom.

Sure, Halloween has a religious origin, dating back to the Druidism of pre-Christian Celtic populations. The occasion marked the calling together of certain wicked souls by Saman, the lord of death. Thus we see all the ghost and witch costumes. But how many of the children wearing them are going to be converted to Druidism?

By the same token, Jewish children will not be converted to Christianity because they see Christmas trees or listen to traditional Christmas carols. However, conversion is not the point. The point is that Jewish students should not feel alien and second-class because they are surrounded in their school by Christian symbols.

That should not be allowed to happen. Thirty years ago, Jewish agencies firmly opposed any "religiously tainted" expression in the schools, including that of Chanukah. But later, the agencies were flattened by the mad rush of Jewish parents to bring Chanukah to the schools. No one thought singing Chanukah songs or spinning the dreidels was a major religious exercise, but parents felt it was a chance for their children to stand up and say: We are Jewish, we are a proud part of America's religious quilt, and, culturally speaking, if you show us yours, we'll show you ours.

"Culturally" is the key word. The public school should never allow itself to be mistaken for a church. Religious crosses hanging in the hallways would appear an official endorsement by the school, and would be oppressive to non-Christian students. "Jingle Bells" would not be oppressive, nor would traditional and well-known Christmas carols in a quiltwork musical program.

Of course, such carols could be seen as "religiously tainted," as is, indeed, the story of Chanukah. But there is no longer any need in America to protect children from the realization that there are many legitimate religious cultures in America, and that religion is a major player in American society.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist apparently tried to make the Supreme Court a religiously antiseptic place when he wanted to hold a court session on a Jewish High Holy Day, but the session was canceled when Justice Stephen Breyer, raised in a Jewish atmosphere in San Francisco, said he would not attend. It is at least as important that the public school, an educational institution, not be made antiseptic.

In the Christmas season, as in the Halloween season, it is necessary to be vigilant against any appearance of religious indoctrination or exclusive sectarian dominance. But it is also necessary to realize that religion-neutral does not mean religion-free.