A letter to parents from Dr. Neil Schmidt of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District caught the eye of many Malibuites affiliated with Catholic, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reconstructionist (Judaism) and Chabad congregations.
In the Dec. 2 letter, the superintendent apologizes to those offended by a flier that promotes the Keep Christ in Christmas 35th Annual Art and Essay Contest.
Malibu’s public schools weekly send an information packet home with each student. The packet contains fliers from local organizations. The content of these fliers is normally regulated by federal, state and local laws and normally cannot contain matter of a “religious” nature. Keep Christ in Christmas is a local organization comprising several Christian denominations.
“Students are not to be given the impression that their school officially sanctions or prefers a specific religion,” Schmidt writes. “The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious practices, although they may provide secular instruction about religious traditions in a balanced manner.”
Although there was no district correspondence, a flier announcing a community Hanukkah party and dedication of a Torah scroll, distributed to students the following week, also was not approved, Schmidt said in a phone interview. All printed materials distributed by schools are subject to district approval. Typically, the SM-MUSD’s own legal counsel reviews daily requests from all 16 campuses. In some cases, the district refers to County Office of Education counsel or to the California School Boards Assocation.
“When we feel it [a flier] goes beyond established guidelines, we ask the group to modify it,” says Schmidt. Often, this merely means taking out a word or two.
In its detailed description of contest rules, the KCIC flier references scripture from Luke (2:8-11, 13-14). A shorter, more general missive available at local churches does not contain the reference. In the past, parents received KCIC information more in keeping with the second flier.
The Hanukkah invitation announces a grand raffle for a SONY Playstation. Religious content was not at issue, although symbolic artwork may have been at question. That kid business is big business more accurately describes the conflict.
According to Schmidt, about 80 percent of materials received contain some commercial aspect. Those that advocate or endorse a particular product by brand name are unapproved.
“We get thousands of requests,” he says. Local, nonprofit programs get priority. Schmidt emphasizes, “. . . during the time they’re not in school, children should be involved in activities that enhance and are essential to their development.”
Guidelines for recognition of religious beliefs and customs are reviewed periodically by the California School Boards Association. Schmidt says in more than 25 years as a principal and superintendent, questions of what is appropriate and what is not are raised by communities a few times each decade.
“Some districts have a hands-off policy with regard to distribution of printed materials,” he says. “Who suffers are our children. As a family-oriented youth agency, we strive to provide resources to strengthen families, because we believe families play an integral role in our work.”
Schmidt already has initiated the process of contacting local groups to review criteria for printed materials and hopes to have a meeting by the end of January.
Repeated within the nine district guidelines governing religious beliefs and customs (May 29, 1990) is the concept of balance. Therefore, Schmidt supports the idea that schools make every attempt to consolidate the community-event fliers of various religious groups into one package for distribution. Winter concerts, classroom instruction and holiday decorations should follow accordingly. One example is set at Webster Elementary, where principal Phil Cott maintains a program of classroom presentations during the holiday season.
Parent volunteers deliver presentations to explain the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza. Children are introduced to the songs, foods and customs associated with each holiday.
Susan Bunn contributed to this story.