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How one school district solved the ‘December Dilemma’

 

Bill Waugh/The Oklahoman

Scott Gibson plays a wise man for a live Nativity scene in Mustang, Okla., on Dec. 9, 2004, across the street from Lakehoma Elementary School, where on the advice of an attorney the traditional Nativity scene was banned. The alternative Nativity scene was held in protest across the street from the school auditorium.

MUSTANG, Okla. — When the superintendent in this Bible Belt town yanked baby Jesus from a fifth-grade school play – but left in symbols of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, along with Santa Claus – a small army of parents erupted in protest.

But in the months after last year’s controversy, school officials, religious leaders and parents came together to develop a religious liberties policy that has helped mend, if not heal completely, the strained relations.

As school districts nationwide grapple with the “December Dilemma” of how to mark the holidays, Charles Haynes, co-author of Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, suggests that this Oklahoma City suburb’s experience offers a case study in what can go wrong – and right.

In Mustang, the manger scene in the Lakehoma Elementary fifth-grade play had been a tradition for years. That is, until the superintendent axed it on the advice of the district’s legal counsel.

However, the district allowed a Christmas tree and Santa Claus to remain in the production, as well as symbols of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Outraged, Kim Selvey and a dozen other parents hired an attorney to take their concerns to the school board.

The night of the program, protesters organized a live Nativity scene across the street from the school auditorium. Organizers carried signs such as, “No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas.”

What started as a small dispute “got huge really, really quickly,” said Dave Bryan, pastor of Chisholm Heights Baptist Church.

The furor was all-too-familiar to Haynes, who was called to help mediate.

All too often, Haynes said, schools wait until December to decide their approach to religious issues when they should be developing clear policies in January.

At one extreme, assemblies seem “more like the local church than the local school,” he said. At the other extreme, districts strip references to the religious aspect of Christmas.

 

Protect religious rights

In Mustang, Bryan served as co-chairman of a 30-member task force formed early this year to develop a religious liberties policy for the school district. Members included Christian and Jewish religious leaders, teachers, school administrators and parents.

The policy approved by the school board in May states: “Public schools may neither instill nor inhibit religion.” It went on to say “Mustang Public Schools uphold the First Amendment by protecting the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or no faith.”

Karl Springer, the school superintendent, said “great progress” has been made.

This year’s Lakehoma Elementary program will feature a brief Nativity scene, he said.

But it will include this clear attribution: “Some Christians believe.”

“It’s a small change that makes a big difference,” Springer said.