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Education Reporter

Holidays Become a Source of Religious Conflict
At schools where the local population is changing or where a diverse population disagrees on important issues, each holiday becomes hotly contested ground. "When you get changes in society or in the population, it creates new situations," Northwestern University sociology professor Bernard Beck told the Chicago Tribune (10-3-07). "America has been trying to get along on the basis of a bargain, saying, 'We're all basically the same.' But more recently, the message is, 'We're not all the same. Not all religions have the same message.'" Conflicts have arisen this school year over Halloween, Christmas, and Ramadan.

Kohl Elementary School in Broomfield, Colorado was one school that discarded the traditional Halloween party this year in favor of a more generic fall party, without costumes and on a different date. Kohl administrators cited the small number of students who can't afford store-bought costumes, or who don't celebrate Halloween, to explain their decision.

A suburban Chicago school board decided to allow Halloween and Christmas celebrations to continue in local schools as long as the schools celebrate Ramadan as well. About 30% of students in Ridgeland School District 122 are of Arab descent, many of them Muslim. Elizabeth Zahdan, mother of three District 122 students, raised questions of fairness about local schools' Halloween and Christmas traditions. Zahdan wanted schools to display stars and moons in honor of Ramadan, and to allow her children and other Muslim students to spend lunchtime together, away from other students, during the Ramadan fast.

Zahdan's requests sparked a debate so volatile that Columbus Manor School administrators called the police in case a shouting match among parents got out of hand. The holiday issue touched a nerve, especially as it followed closely on changes to the lunch menu to accommodate Muslim students. Officials removed all items containing pork, as well as Jell-O, which is sometimes made with tissue or bones from pigs. The exclusion of Jell-O from the menu raised such a ruckus that the district finally agreed to bring it back.

Parents like Bryan Schapiro believe more is at stake in these debates than may at first appear. "For a number of years now I've seen something change every year because it goes against Muslim beliefs," said Schapiro. "Traditions that have been beloved by children in America for centuries are now being taken away little by little because the Muslims want the school day, menu, and social traditions tailored to their needs."

At District 122 schools, Santa Claus visits annually, and holiday gift bazaars allow students and parents to purchase gifts, with partial proceeds going to the school. But those activities hardly go to the heart of Christmas.

While some schools embrace new holidays in an effort to recognize every religion equally, others ban all mention of any religious holiday in a misguided effort to keep religion out of schools. Glenelg High School in Howard County, Maryland, took on the role of Grinch this year against the school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The FCA sponsored an "Operation Christmas Child" project, gathering toys and gifts for children whose parents are in jail. Glenelg's principal forced the FCA to cover the word "Christmas" on the flyers advertising the toy drive, replacing it with the word "Holiday" to read, "Operation Holiday Child."

The American Family Association (AFA), upon hearing of the principal's action, donated 1,000 "Merry Christmas" buttons to students at Glenelg High. AFA's Center for Law and Policy has also undertaken a "Christmas Project" to educate administrators and teachers on students' right to talk about Christmas at school and engage in other forms of religious expression, at Christmastime and all year long.

"Schools must not become 'religion-free zones' where the only perspective ever heard is secular and materialistic," the legal group affirmed.

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