Religious intrusions in schools arent just seasonal events

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How many reindeer equal one dreidel? Now that Halloween and Thanksgiving are past, many school classrooms have launched into the annual homestretch — the "winter" holiday season, complete with decorations and holiday-related activities.

The Jewish community has always strongly preferred that religiously based holiday activities not be part of a secular school's curricula.

It is rare, however, to find an American school or classroom at this time of year completely devoid of Christmas trimmings — maybe with a little Chanukah thrown in. My teeth begin to grind when I hear of an in-class writing assignment in which children write letters to Santa or when the premium for reading extra library books is a Christmas-tree decoration to take home. I must conclude that a teacher just doesn't "get it" when she has all her kindergarteners make red-paper stockings to hang on their mantels at home, and calls this an "individualized" art project.

It is important for Jewish parents facing such situations to realize that the source of the problem is usually misunderstanding rather than malice. Few hard-and-fast rules exist to guide parents and school personnel through the holiday arena. Thus it is very important to deal with each inquiry individually, as it comes, and handle each situation with the minimum intervention necessary to achieve positive results.

Often the Jewish Community Relations Council is better suited than an emotionally involved parent to assess and deal with these issues.

One must ask: As Christmas approaches, do all the math worksheets feature holiday symbols? Do most areas of the classroom's total curricula relate to a religiously based holiday so that every subject is permeated with holiday trappings for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation? Is the impression given that the school endorses a particular religion? When religious selections are included in a music program, does the program take on the aura of a worshipful experience, or are most of the selections seasonal and secular?

Are several different religions included in seasonal activities so that the school is not perceived as endorsing any one religion? Are pupils who object on religious grounds to participating in a certain activity excused discreetly without penalty, or are they ostracized and made to feel isolated?

Each situation needs to be considered in terms of legal status, the school's sensitivity to its student population and the attitude and intensity of feeling in the community. Sometimes attempts to make quick changes in a school's standard behavior triggers a backlash in the general community and results in a less desirable situation than the previously existing one.

Unfortunately, recent court decisions have bolstered the position of those who believe public schools should provide even more outlets for religious expression.

What is legally permissible is not always good public policy. In fact, it is disheartening to review some of the institutions — including Christmas carols, holiday decorations and prayer groups — now considered legally permissible. The Clinton administration has gone on record declaring that schools are not religion-free zones.

Using material developed by a coalition of religious and civil rights groups including most national Jewish agencies, and supported editorially by the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, the administration has advised schools that they can be more permissive in allowing religious expression.

This action aimed to forestall enactment of a constitutional amendment that would remove all barriers to prayer in the schools, a strategy that may prove unsuccessful. In support of the administration's position, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent every school district in the country a "Statement of Principles" enumerating many examples of students' religious expression that he considers legal. It is based on the premise that student-initiated religious expression such as spoken prayer and religious advocacy merits the same free-speech rights as any other type of speech and advocacy, as long as it is neither endorsed nor initiated by the school and is not part of the school's curriculum.

This is a worrisome trend that could do more to bring religion into public schools than holiday activities. In a letter to area school superintendents, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Councils education task force expressed concern that Riley's communique neglected to adequately explain what safeguards are required in the exercise of students' religious speech. Without such safeguards, there is a danger that a group of evangelical students could Christianize the school's general atmosphere.

To prevent this from happening, schools need to provide an inclusive environment that promotes respect for all religious beliefs. Care must be taken to ensure that no pupil feels harassed or alienated, or becomes an unwilling audience to someone else's spoken prayer or religious proselytizing.

A trend of creeping permissiveness has not dampened the fervor of those who want to remove almost all restraints on religion in the schools. Two recently introduced constitutional amendments aim at doing just that. In such a charged environment, it would not be surprising if Jewish students were confronted with increased religious activities this Christmas season.

The Jewish community must pay attention to what is going on. Separation of church and state in our schools may be on the critical list.