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Storming the CASTLE in the War on Christmas

CASTLE is stealing Christmas

‘Tis the season, folks. For family, friends and joy, some say.

Others seize the opportunity to hoist the banner of the Establishment Clause to persecute those who dare to recognize any bit of Christmas in public schools.

Over at Dangerously Irrelevant, Dr. Scott McLeod, Director of the Center of Advanced Study of Leadership in Education [CASTLE], announced a game called “Spot That Holiday Violation!” The contest, judged by McLeod, Jon Becker and Justin Bathon, is meant to highlight egregious violations of that delicate religion/public institution balance.

Here’s their pitch and explanation of the rules:

SPOT THAT HOLIDAY VIOLATION!

Here are the rules:

  1. Only American public schools are eligible. [sorry, international readers]
  2. Identify a possible violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution in your local school system. The Establishment Clause requires that schools not favor a) one religion (e.g., Christianity) over another religion, or b) religion over no religion. Government-sponsored religious displays or activities are pretty much always unconstitutional.
  3. Leave your description of the possible violation in the comments section of this post. If you’re not sure if it’s a violation or not, leave it anyway and we’ll chime in as needed. Possible violations may include teacher- or school-sponsored activities, displays, or other actions.
  4. The most egregious violation [as judged by myself, Justin Bathon (at CASTLE’s brother blog, EdJurist), and Jon Becker (of Educational Insanity)] wins a yet-to-be-determined prize!
  5. Deadline for entries is December 23, 2008.

Violations of the Establishment Clause are not to be taken lightly. We’ve got a unique setup here in the United States – though founded clearly on Judeo-Christian/Western principles, we aren’t a thuggish, iron-fisted theocracy that forces the minority to join the mission of the majority.

Some, however – and this includes the CASTLErs with this initiative – interpret the Establishment Clause as it relates to public schools to mean that the ‘freedom from’ is near absolute.

I described this particular contest as “glib, ideologically-driven tripe” – and at least one good soul in the blogosphere appreciated that. If you read the comments, you’ll see why the “Spot That Holiday Violation!” contest exhibits twice the zealotry they’re working so hard to point out.

And, to co-opt a fashionable education term, this contest facilitates that anti-Christmas zealotry.

One of the first gripes details public school religion horrors that include Christmas trees, reindeer on the walls [that "suggests that one religion's folklore is more accepted than any other"] and – brace yourselves, folks, this is the worst:

We even have a Christmas tree in our commons area with Christmas wishes for needy families written on angels that hang on the tree for people to take and grant (Nothing for our needy families that don’t celebrate Christmas).”

It’s sad that one approaches the world in this way – that the holiday season is such an offensive encroachment on liberty as to become mean-spirited and exclusionary. I replied:

Well done spotting the subtle suggestion that these Christian zealots want to spend December 25th beating needy pagans into a bloody pulp with their well-thumped Bibles – while passing on good tidings only to fellow believers, that is.”

That well-wishing for the needy was directed only to the Christian needy is about as plausible as “don we now our gay apparel” actually referring to a costume appropriate for the Folsom Street Fair. But this is the reality of how progressive educators and their torch-bearers view the intersection of religion, Western culture and our schools.

Not a terribly constructive tone, I’ll admit, but at the time I posted that comment, I didn’t think anyone would take the initiative seriously.

Here’s another protest from a teacher forced to endure a faculty talent show at which performers sang some Christmas-themed songs:

“Yesterday, our faculty was forced to sit through a 2-hour luncheon, during which our administration hosted an open-mic talent session. 7 different faculty members sang religious Christmas songs (and not all of them very well.) During the singing, the cafeteria frequently broke out with “Amens” and “Tell it brother/sister.” It was really painful;; I felt like I was at church. My snarky colleagues and I joked about volunteering to sing the Dradle song.”

How she managed to survive is beyond me. I replied to “ms”:

“The setting she describes is an open event – presumably any show of ‘talent’ would have been acceptable. The free responses were not coerced and were of the audience’s own volition.

ms jokes that she could have given a rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel” – a song which I learned as a child in my rural, public school, and a song which I otherwise would not have encountered. She could have performed it but she chose not to. Instead, she joked with colleagues and then, as we can see above, posted about it on the CASTLE blog. That she was held against her will without any chance to opt out could have been challenged – and likely upheld.

There are egregious examples of political and religious coercion that exist in public schools. We’ve got urban legends, trusted testimonials and, in some cases, video evidence. No one denies that.

But the examples cited above – including CASTLE’s bizarre, intellectually/socially misguided mission here – fail to recognize the difference between the indoctrination of values and common cultural literacy.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that spending time on songs of the American Civil Rights movement and its social protest is a violation of the Establishment Clause even when those songs are heavily religious [and Christian, no less!]. Take, for example, “We Shall Overcome,” a staple of that era. Our jurists here fail to protest that such demonstrations of our culture are really religious evangelism. In that example they recognize a difference between culture and indoctrination – and they’ve reached the proper conclusion. Even so, there’s no reason to pretend that their selective discrimination is not based on their political and social preferences.

They are, in a phrase, intellectually dishonest. If they were truly committed to tying these commonplace celebrations of Christmas to that list of Establishment Clause violations, they’d plop Joel Osteen and Rosa Parks in the same category.

Mr. Anderson and the CASTLErs – as well as future commenters, surely – seem to suggest that celebrating, or even recognizing, these cultural elements constitutes a rejection of all others. This simply isn’t true. That suggestion isn’t any more valid than if one attempted to make the case that our celebration of American Independence Day every July 4th carried with it a contemptuous attitude toward countries with different histories or forms of government.

There’s a reason that most calendars include the Commonwealth countries’ Boxing Day, and it isn’t because we’re filled with hate toward celebrations that aren’t our own.”

That’s the beauty of holiday celebrations – and all celebrations, really. Talk show host and religious scholar Dennis Prager likens it to a goodwill celebration of another’s birthday. It isn’t our own day, we really have no stake in it. We celebrate with him, nonetheless, because we share that joy. It’s common decency, it’s common culture. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in another country [or even in a different part of the United States] has likely had great fun – and increased their appreciation of that culture – by sharing in celebrations that weren’t their own.

One issue was troubling to a CASTLE judge – “messiah” being the ‘word of the day’ in a school district:

“A public school here has a word of the day, which is a definition of a particular, pre-chosen word. Well, a couple weeks ago the word was “Messiah.” The definition for Messiah was something to the effect of “in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, who is their savior and redeemer. Who came to Earth and was born in a manger and Christmas, and died to save the world’s sins.” No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions. It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day. My question was, Messiah is fine with me to define, but why not just use an actual dictionary definition instead of making one up that turned into a definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ? Anyway, I know that is not going to qualify as the “most egregious,” but nevertheless I thought it was a cute violation.”

On Twitter and other media, I’ve been candid about the CASTLE attitude toward Establishment Clause violations screaming of ignorance. I said, in a tongue-in-cheek Tweet, that “3 JDs < 1 BA” with an implied reference to our three judges. Here was my response to Mr. Bathon regarding “messiah”:

“Justin,

I’m going to parse your comment to make it a little easier.

“The definition for Messiah was something to the effect of “in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, who is their savior and redeemer. Who came to Earth and was born in a manger and Christmas, and died to save the world’s sins.”

The Messiah is primarily a Christian/Hebrew concept as the term originates in the Old Testament. What was given was a very specific definition – if you want to take issue with that, go ahead. My guess is that it was presented this way because of time/medium constraints. How would you define “Messiah” in a 140 character tweet?

“No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions”

Perhaps that’s because there aren’t as many as you might think. The Jews have yet to get theirs. The Christians recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It would have been valuable – and an inch closer to that special goal of all-things-diversity, yes? – to mention that the Koran/Islam recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, too.

Put simply, going on about the Rastafari Messiah et al. would have covered all the bases – at the expense of time and practical concerns.

“It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day”

You have failed to make a case that there was an “intentional crossing of the line” in this example. I’ve just shown you why your argument is folly.

“Messiah is fine with me to define, but why not just use an actual dictionary definition instead of making one up that turned into a definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ?”

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/messiah

First, peep that definition. You’ll find that what you heard – and complained about here – isn’t different than what’s found in a dictionary.

Second, that you saw it as a “definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ” is a deliberate misinterpretation. This time it’s a mix of dishonesty and abysmal comprehension. Unless there’s more to the situation than what you described, no sensible person would hear that and think it was evangelism. Highly-specific description that fails to take into account other relevant facets of the definition, such as the Jews waiting on their Messiah? Yes. Christian evalngelism? No.

You folks should have spent less time in inadequate Constitutional Law courses and more time in core Western Civilization classes. It would’ve saved all of us a lot of time.”

I didn’t touch on his use of messiah vs. Messiah, but I should have.

These, folks, are the education leaders’n'lawyers who are determining what you can and can’t do in public schools. Unfortunately, they know precious little about religion, Western culture and tradition. In a response to my comment, Mr. Bathon continues:

Let’s get some more … this is fun (and educational for me too).”

It isn’t fun for me.

It’s depressing to see such deliberate misinterpretation and misapplication of Constitutional principles with regard to public schools. It’s even worse to see it injected into one of the happier times of the year – especially for kids. It’s zealotry mixed with fearmongering, and at the foundation is a profound ignorance of Western culture.

A commenter suggested in a not-so-subtle way that this was a personal issue for me. It isn’t. One of the few things my local school does right, assuming it hasn’t changed much, is the holidays – that’s why I’ve got a neat dreidel story.

I’d like every kid to share in the joy of the holiday season even if the celebrations aren’t his own. It’s far healthier than a deranged protest that one be entitled to a freedom from all things that aren’t dear to him.

One approach is selfish, arrogant, and narcissistic. The other rests on tolerance, shared joy, diversity and community. You decide which is better.

So, in that way, I suppose it is a personal issue for me. Healthy kids and healthy, diverse communities that recognize and share one another’s traditions are the communities we need.

And though I consider threats to that climate largely irrelevant, I do consider them dangerous.

UPDATE at 3.26pm, 12.22.08:

An astute commenter suggested privately that the CASTLErs heed Matthew 7:3:

“”Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”

A good, applicable question.

UPDATE at 4.17pm, 12.22.08:

Dr. Becker has given me some heat on Twitter because of my following tweet:

@[name removed] also, i’ll be damned if i’m going to let some dolt who has to look up the word “messiah” profess to me on “ceremonial deism”

Yes, Dr. Bathon, I called you a dolt because you had the gall to dictate what does and does not pass for overt religious displays when you showed ignorance of Christianity and Western tradition – and then giggled like a schoolboy at the fun of the debate.

Here’s the rest of the exchange:

jonbecker @matthewktabor Sir, I wll NOT stand for you referring to my friends/colleagues as “dolts.” That’s absolutely offensive and wrong!!!
matthewktabor @jonbecker jeering those who celebrate Christmas in schools is fine, calling someone a dolt is horriffic? i guess i see it differently
jonbecker @matthewktabor YES, calling someone a “dolt”, especially in a space where they can’t reply, is horrific.
@jonbecker you’re welcome to forward the message to him – actually, hold, i’ll update my blog, he can respond there
… and here we are, folks.

6 Responses to “Storming the CASTLE in the War on Christmas”

  1. Justin B. says:

    Okay, I am going to reply once, and probably only once.

    I don’t mind the dolt comment (although spelling my name right would be cool). Actually, I take some pride in the comment and – it’s not the first time: http://www.edjurist.com/blog/im-a-technology-hypocrite-its-my-job-to-be.html – I am interested in the law as it exists, not as it should exist. My job is to find the lines and to educate others on those lines – it is not my job to tell you where the line should be. That’s for others and clearly, Matthew, you are interested in doing that and that is fine. If you don’t like where the law is, that’s cool, write about it , talk to your Congressmen, bring a lawsuit, whatever. I don’t really care because a different part of that same Amendment protects your right to do so and everyone’s voice is valuable in a democracy. But, in articulating where the lines are I am aware that from time to time I am going to offend people who want the lines to be somewhere else. So, it comes with the territory – although I don’t think I have ever been called a dolt before. So, that honor goes to you.

    Next, I went to Catholic school (and am a practicing Catholic), so I know the difference between Messiah and messiah. I re-read it and I didn’t mess up the capitalization. In fact, had I to do it over again, I would have not capitalized the last use of messiah as I used it in a broad way to refer the collective, not the singular (which I assume you would think of as Jesus). Whether you like it or not, the U.S. Government is open to the possibility of multiple messiahs – and everyone is free to worship their own. The ONLY legal way that the definition could have been used in a public school is to define messiah, not Messiah.

    Third, did you bother to continue following the conversation on DI? If so, you probably would have realized I was actually on your side here as my interpretation of the law allows for schools to incorporate secular references to Christmas. i/e schools can probably have Christmas trees. While I am sure you can find lots of ministers, advocates, zealots and maybe even some scholars out there that defend a more pro-Christian position, in terms of legal scholars my position was about as good from a pro-Christianity standpoint as you are going to get. Again, you don’t have to like it, but that’s what it is. Your criticizing me from the right and Scott and Jon are criticizing me from the left … so, I’m feeling pretty good about it.

    Now, maybe I was too glib in calling this exercise fun and calling that violation cute. I deal with this everyday, all day, so perhaps you will forgive my using those terms for this serious matter. But, this exercise IS educational in a more entertaining way than a lecture and I thought that violation was cute because it was rather harmless, and I don’t think the teacher had any bad intentions, but it was still clearly wrong. Anyway, I might have been too rash with my language and for that I apologize.

    Anyway, I am not interested into getting into a back and forth on this because the law sort of is what it is. If you are interested in debating the legal standards, I suggest you read up and then we can have that debate. But, since we are in the United States and the U.S. Constitution does have the Establishment Clause which has a couple hundred years of legal precedent behind it, to debate anything else would be to argue a hypothetical. This is a country that is all about change, though, so I am glad there are people out there writing and commenting and thinking about these issues, such as yourself. That’s good and all feeds the democratic machine which needs that kind of stuff to operate. But, typically we like to deal with those healthy disagreements in a respectful way – and, I’ll leave it up to decide which kind of post this was.

    P.S. – The label on Miguel’s post was “humor” – I wonder why?

  2. Dr. Bathon,

    Apologies for missing your name the second time. There’s no excuse for that – I’ve got a neat story about the importance of one’s name. I won’t tell it now, but suffice it to say that it’s a thing I always try to get right, and I feel badly when I blow it. I’ll correct it immediately.

    I did continue to follow the conversation on Dangerously Irrelevant and I hope that discussion doesn’t get lost because the comments have been shifted to page 2. I found your points to be reluctant acceptance and little more.

    My comments re: ‘messiah’ weren’t Christian in nature – they’re cultural and about relevant common identity. Given the time of year, it’s perfectly appropriate to engage in the scenario you described. The edublogosphere is constantly talking about relevance, relevance, relevance – and that example combines relevance, culture, scholarship, etc. Did you bother to get any testimony from students saying they felt coerced, uncomfortable… anything?

    “I deal with this everyday, all day, so perhaps you will forgive my using those terms for this serious matter.”

    So do I, to a lesser extent than you do. I don’t get paid for it.

    “But, typically we like to deal with those healthy disagreements in a respectful way – and, I’ll leave it up to decide which kind of post this was.”

    If you want to take the high road, perhaps you shouldn’t go with that soft ad hominem of “I suggest you read ____…”

    That you participated in this snide competition – and it’s one that more than a few privately have called “offensive,” though I understand their decision not to say so publicly – shows your commitment to respect.

    Miguel’s post was tongue-in-cheek. I’m glad that he was able to treat the topic lightly.

  3. Scott McLeod says:

    Hi Matthew,

    We educational law professors spend a lot of time immersed in these difficult and thorny questions. As Justin notes, it doesn’t matter what we personally believe. What’s important is what the Court has stated. And the Court is pretty clear that we don’t count heads before we enforce the First Amendment and that public schools have a particular responsibility (compared to more adult institutions) to not sponsor one religion over another (or religion over non-religion).

    I apologize if you thought the tone of my original post was too snide. As I explained in one of my later comments, it was meant to be a fairly light-hearted attempt to highlight some particularly egregious offenses for the purposes of education and discussion. If I failed to accomplish that, I plead guilty and will work to do a better job next time. These are serious matters but I think it’s also okay to treat them with a little levity, tempered by an understanding that right now is a joyous season for many and that “bah, humbug” spirit should be kept in check.

    A Merry Christmas to you and yours. My own kids are enjoying being with our extended family over break and are excited about Santa coming in a couple of days…

  4. Scott,

    I’ll parse your comment to make it a little easier.

    “We educational law professors spend a lot of time immersed in these difficult and thorny questions.”

    Dr. McLeod, so does everyone else in the world. That sentence is as arrogant and misguided as the “Spot That…!” initiative. There are more than a few everyday social topics that are tougher to tackle than “difficult and thorny” legal questions.

    “As I explained in one of my later comments, it was meant to be a fairly light-hearted attempt to highlight some particularly egregious offenses for the purposes of education and discussion… These are serious matters but I think it’s also okay to treat them with a little levity, tempered by an understanding that right now is a joyous season for many and that “bah, humbug” spirit should be kept in check.”

    Someone on Twitter put this very well earlier. They said, roughly, “I agree with the point, but not the form.” I wish I’d said that, it echoes my feelings, too.

    That you thought snide levity on this issue was appropriate makes your comment disingenuous or means that you’re socially tone-deaf. I’ve read your work for a long, long time now, and I don’t buy either of those explanations.

    I do, however, think that you and the CASTLEcrew may have decided that the value of a legal debate was more important than than all the positive bits of that “joyous season” you referred to.

    Perhaps next year when you revive this initiative – and I’m sure CASTLE will – why not also examine inappropriate chilling effects created by over-reaches of the Establishment Clause, or in its name?

    Oddly enough, that wasn’t a part of your initiative this time around.

  5. Matthew, I’ll make this easy for you….

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours! :D

  6. Matt Foster says:

    This was the actual definition that was initially given:

    •Messiah – •noun –
    •the name for Jesus Christ, whose coming was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, and is regarded by Christians as the Savior who has come to redeem and purify the world from sin and suffering.

    And it was changed, after some faculty conversation, to:

    In Judaism, the name for the promised deliverer of the Hebrews. In Christianity, Jesus. Any long awaited liberator.

    Mind you that it was preceded by poinsetta, Advent, Yuletide, and mistletoe, then followed by Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

    There was no mention of Ramadan a couple months ago, or Yom Kippur.

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