Shel Lyons, a parent at Carmel River School, is suing the school after it refused to allow an inflatable menorah (left) at an event centered around the school's "holiday tree" (right).
Shel Lyons, a parent at Carmel River School, is suing the school after it refused to allow an inflatable menorah (left) at an event centered around the school's "holiday tree" (right).

A Carmel school refused to allow an inflatable menorah at a ‘holiday tree’ lighting. A Jewish parent filed a lawsuit.

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What’s an appropriate way to welcome the holiday season at a public elementary school?

How about with an “Ugly Sweater Day,” a “Toasty Pajamas Day” or a “Winter Hat/Beanie or Scarf Day”?

These are some of the noncontroversial “holiday dress-up” themes in recent years at Carmel River School, an elementary school in the seaside village 120 miles south of San Francisco in Monterey County. Every year the school “encourages” but does not require students to show their holiday spirit in mid-December.

But what about “Rudolph Red Day” or “Grinchy Green Day”? What about a “Santa Hat or Holiday Headwear/Band Day”?

And finally, what about a school-wide, outdoor tree lighting?

Held on Dec. 10, that event became a source of controversy after Jewish parent Shel Lyons — who saw the tree lighting not as a religion-neutral affair but a Christian one — asked to bring a giant inflatable menorah to display alongside the bedecked tree. Her request was denied by the PTA and school administration.

Lyons, who has a third-grader at the K-5 school and is the parent of two of its graduates, has for some time scrutinized the school’s practices for what she describes as a pattern of favoring Christianity over other religions.

But this year, scrutiny came also from a federal judge after Lyons, an attorney, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California.

Ultimately the lawsuit failed; Lyons voluntarily dismissed it three days after an unfavorable ruling on an intermediate motion. But the dispute has raised decades-old questions about how to properly include students of different faiths at a public elementary school.

It also revived a national debate over what it means to show preference to a specific religion — which is unconstitutional by a public school, according to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — versus what officials at the Carmel River School are calling the use of nonreligious symbols to celebrate the holiday season.

In the order denying Lyons’ motion, for a temporary restraining order that would have required the school to allow the inflatable menorah, Judge Beth Labson Freeman did not rule on a larger question posed in the lawsuit: whether the school had shown a pattern of favoring Christianity. 

Lyons did not meet the “high standard” required for the restraining order, Freeman wrote, while adding that the allegations of “systemic endorsement of Christian beliefs” were “very serious,” and “the feelings of exclusion experienced by the minor children are particularly troubling.”

The tree lighting event was at the center of the lawsuit, filed Dec. 7 in federal court in San Jose. The Dec. 10 gathering was hosted by the Parent Teachers Association, which required the permission of administrators to hold the event on school property.

Though described as a tree lighting, the festivities also involved decorating the tree, planted on school grounds, with ornaments. 

Lyons saw the event plainly as a Christmas tree ceremony, and said while Christmas-themed celebrations and symbols are everywhere at the school, symbols of other holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, are not.

The school does make attempts to include Hanukkah around the holidays. But when a Hanukkah song was sung at her child’s kindergarten holiday music show several years ago, Lyons said, it was introduced as an “Israeli” song, implying to her that the Christmas songs were simply “American” songs.

“I had to explain to them we are not Israeli, my daughter doesn’t speak Hebrew,” she said.

Prior to the tree lighting event, the PTA invited school families to bring an item to decorate the tree “that reflects their family, heritage, and/or faith.” 

Lyons said she and her husband “were shocked by the ignorance and offensiveness of that suggestion.”

Instead, she asked to bring a Hanukkah object — a 6-foot tall inflatable hanukkiah, or menorah — to display alongside the tree. 

The PTA and the school refused, saying it did not meet the qualifications for an ornament: that the object be able to fit into a paper lunch bag.

“Large inflatables have never been used on the School campus as part of December holiday celebrations,” school principal Jay Marden wrote in a declaration filed with the court.

A flyer announcing the themes for "Holiday Dress-Up Week" at Carmel River School.
A flyer announcing the general themes for “Holiday Dress-Up Week” at Carmel River School.

The school said it offered Lyons the opportunity to display her inflatable menorah elsewhere “when the use would not conflict with the scheduled event.” Lyons said the offer was made after Hanukkah had ended, but if it were made earlier she would have considered it.

To many Jews, the idea of decorating a tree in December with a Jewish object feels odd, if not unseemly. Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of Carmel’s Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, said he would in general advise congregants against it. 

Greenbaum sent his children to the Carmel River School and said he called to voice his displeasure when he heard about the recent controversy.

“Don’t turn your hanukkiah into a Christmas decoration,” he said. “That’s desecrating the hanukkiah.”

He didn’t buy the notion that the tree lighting ceremony was unrelated to Christmas, despite the tree being an existing one on school grounds.

“I told them there’s no such thing as a tree lighting, which is what they’re calling it,” he said. “You can call it a tree lighting, but it’s just a Christmas tree lighting.”

The Carmel Unified School District did not respond to a detailed request for comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Legally, Lyons faced an uphill climb from the beginning. That’s according to Charles Russo, a law professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in education law and in 2014 co-authored a paper on legal issues surrounding the celebration of Christmas in public schools. (In her complaint, Lyons asked the judge to declare the Carmel River School’s practices unconstitutional, and to order school administrators to change course).

Russo pointed to the fact that the Supreme Court has determined Christmas trees and Santa Claus to be secular, not religious, symbols.

“If the school officials did not have some explicit Christian symbol,” like a baby Jesus or a nativity scene, he said, “I don’t think [the lawsuit] is going to go too far.”

Indeed, Freeman wrote in her order denying the restraining order that the event did not violate the Establishment Clause, as Lyons alleged — and would not have even if it had been a Christmas tree lighting. Because the Supreme Court held in 1989’s Allegheny County v. the ACLU that the Christmas tree “is not itself a religious symbol.”

Lyons, who did not rule out filing a new lawsuit in a phone call with J., said she had looked into finding a new school for her third-grader, but the other elementary school in her district was full. 

Still, holiday dress-up week began Monday, and her son wanted to participate. But he did so in a unique way. 

The two designed their own red and green T-shirts: one for “Rudolph Red Day” and another for “Grinchy Green Day.” The red shirt says, “Don’t be RUDE oft INCLUDE all,” and the green shirt says, “Hanukkah: no Grinches only Gimels.”

Hanukkah-themed T-shirts created by Lyons and her son.
Hanukkah-themed T-shirts created by Lyons and her son.

Lyons said ultimately she was dismayed by the school’s response to her complaints, whether administrators are legally protected or not.

If the law allows it, “it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong,” she said, of the school’s approach. “It doesn’t matter if kids get hurt.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.