Battle On Crèches In Schools Goes to City Hall

January 13, 2009

Author: Javier C. Hernandez

Source: The New York Times

In public schools, it is known as the December Dilemma — the delicate balancing of menorahs, Christmas trees, stars and crescents along hallways and in front offices. The New York City Department of Education has long granted such symbols a public place during the holiday season, but has not allowed nativity scenes, because it sees them as purely religious.

On Wednesday, the battle over whether to allow crèches in schools will go to City Hall, as opponents of the Education Department’s policy try to persuade members of the City Council’s education committee to support an effort to overturn the ban on nativity scenes.

The city has long allowed what it considers secular symbols to be displayed temporarily during the holidays in the spirit of promoting pluralism. Though the policy does not explicitly ban crèches, it has not allowed them, arguing that they are purely religious and could alienate non-Christian students.

Councilman Tony Avella, who in 2007 introduced the resolution asking for the department to change its policy, said the city should be open to giving Christians a religious symbol on a par with the menorah or star and crescent.

“If you believe in fairness and inclusion,” he said, “then you have to say yes to this.”

Three years ago, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city’s policy. While the appeals court took issue with the city’s characterization of the menorah and star and crescent as secular symbols, it said the policy had been crafted with a secular intent and effect — to promote the diversity of the holiday season — and did not denigrate Christianity. The United States Supreme Court has since declined to take up the matter.

The appeals court, however, left open the possibility that crèches could be considered legal, saying it was not ruling one way or the other on the issue.

Opponents of the Education Department’s policy have now turned to the City Council as a last-ditch effort to bring nativity scenes onto school grounds.