Bradley A. Levin, Chairman
Bruce H. DeBoskey, Regional Director ADL, Mountain States Region
This article originally appeared in Rocky Mountain News on December 12, 2003
Is the Anti-Defamation League trying to "censor Christmas"?
That's the charge leveled by the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization of lawyers founded by, among others, Focus on the Family, that "works with other groups to confront the ACLU and other like-minded organizations to keep the door open for the Gospel in America." Here are the facts; you decide.
For the past year, ADL has received complaints about the promotion of a strongly Christian agenda in a Colorado public charter school. Those complaints started following remarks by the principal at the school's holiday concert last December about his personal religious beliefs, including quotes from the Bible. Later complaints involved trivia questions for students about the New Testament, the routine playing of Christian music in the school office and the showing of a creationism video in science class which stated "the only way to be saved from the next flood is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior."
In August, concerned parents at the school wrote to the principal asking to work with him to develop a more inclusive holiday concert this December and avoid what they perceived as an exclusively Christian program at last year's event. They met with the principal in October, after their children came home with the list of songs being rehearsed for the concert - a list that was overwhelmingly weighted with religious Christmas carols. According to the parents, the principal was willing to add a Hannukah song if they wanted, but only because Jesus was Jewish.
The family, feeling like outsiders in their own school and therefore concerned for their children's well-being, turned to ADL, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, privately contacted the principal to relay to him the concerns of the parents and what appeared to be violations of constitutional protections. In its letter to the principal, ADL and ACLU repeated the request of the parents that the school create a more inclusive concert, and that the Christian music and video be removed from the public school.
In response to the issues raised in our letter, the school's attorney went on a national public relations campaign, falsely accusing the parents of demanding that the school take all the songs - even Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman - off the program, and condemning ADL and ACLU for trying to "censor Christmas."
Such a charge is absurd, sensational and inflammatory. Our letter to the principal stated "a school's choral group can sing songs that are religious in nature" as long as the school does "not appear to endorse religion over nonreligion or one religion over another." This reflects established law on religion in the public schools.
Moreover, characterizing our concerns as an attempt to repress religious expression is anathema to all that the Anti-Defamation League stands for. ADL, for 90 years, has been a steadfast supporter of religious liberty and the right of everyone to celebrate religious traditions. However, contrary to the assertions of the Alliance Defense Fund, a public school is a place of religious neutrality.
The constitutional mandate of separation of church and state, as interpreted in a long line of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, prohibits a public school from giving students the impression that it prefers or sanctions a particular religion, or religion generally. Our public schools must be hospitable to students from a variety of backgrounds, regardless of their faith. A Christmas concert dominated by religious carols, Christian music in the school office, and a creationism video in science class with a theological message are not reflective of religious neutrality, but instead appear to be school endorsement of the Christian religion.
Celebrations of holidays and expressions of religious belief enrich the personal and spiritual lives of many Americans. But those practices belong in a house of worship, in private religious schools, in the home, and in the heart - not in the public schools. Our public schools should inculcate students with understanding and respect for diversity, as well as a spirit of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion.
A sturdy wall separating church and state is essential to preserving and promoting freedom of religion in our increasingly pluralistic nation.
Consequently, promotion of religious views, such as that which took place in this Colorado public school, is inconsistent with the guarantees of religious liberty in the First Amendment.