Fourth-graders at McNear Elementary in Petaluma, Calif. will be celebrating the dead in a week-long classroom ritual designed to simulate the Mexican holiday “El Dia de los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead.
According to a letter sent to parents by the public-school teachers, obtained by WorldNetDaily, the traditional Meso-American holiday will be observed from Oct. 28 – Nov. 1 as an alternative to the celebration of Halloween where youngsters traditionally wear costumes and hold classroom parties. According to the letter, dated Oct. 11, 2002, the 9-year-olds will be “putting together an ofrenda with symbolic items” and will be “bringing in a picture and write up fond memories about a deceased family member, friend or pet.” While the letter defines “ofrenda” as “remembrance table,” an accompanying flier defines it as an “altar.”
A second letter addressed to parents and dated Oct. 27, 2002, also states that the children are “going to be making an altar (ofrenda) to commemorate those people or animals who have died in their families or among their friends” and indicates that the children will have viewed that day a “film on how this holiday is celebrated in Mexico and the Central American countries as well as in San Francisco.”
The ancient Aztec El Dia de los Muertos ritual celebrated in Mexico and in Mexican communities throughout the United States typically involves honoring the dead by donning wooden skull masks and dancing on the graves of deceased relatives or at altars built in their honor. The altars are surrounded with flowers, food and pictures of the deceased. Celebrants light candles and place them next to the altar. Other traditional symbolic items include toys and tequila, depending on the age of the deceased relative being honored.
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed the deceased come back to visit during the ritual. As the flier sent to Petaluma parents describes, El Dia de los Muertos is a “ritual event in which the spirits of dead loved ones are invited to visit the living as honored guests.”
“They’re crossing the line. This is a religious ritual,” one outraged parent told WorldNetDaily. “They can teach about it, but they’re not supposed to be celebrating.” The Christian parent who does not wish to be named plans to keep her daughter out of school all week to avoid the event.
“I have the right to send my daughter to school to learn math, reading and writing without having a religious ritual shoved down her throat,” she said.
The United States Justice Foundation, or USJF, also objects to the event on the grounds that the school’s sponsorship amounts to an endorsement of particular religious views in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The public-interest law firm wrote a “cease and desist” letter to McNear Elementary and the Petaluma school district after being contacted by a concerned parent of a McNear fourth-grader.
The foundation states the materials distributed to parents and teachers describing the event “are replete with references to ‘altars,’ ‘ritual,’ ‘ofrenda,’ ‘symbolic items,’ ‘cycle of life,’ ‘remembrance,’ ‘dead animals,’ welcoming ‘death’ and other clearly religious themes” and “clearly indicate that the entire event is intended to be a ‘celebration’ and practical application of these spiritual and religious themes.”
USJF further asserts the “undeniably sectarian … nature” of the event will create an environment that is hostile to atheists and followers of mainline Judeo-Christian, Islamic and other faiths who believe it is morally wrong, and religiously impermissible, to engage in “public altar worship, animism, paganism, religious anthropomorphism, offerings, human and animal necromancy, and other such religious practices/rituals.”
“This is irresponsible. As a Christian parent, I would be beside myself if my child came home and said, ‘Hey, we put offerings on the altar of the dead in class today,’” USJF litigation counsel Richard Ackerman told WND. “I just can’t even imagine if they had a Palm Sunday event. People would be freaking out,” he added.
McNear principal Clare Eckhardt denies the event is unconstitutional and maintains the school is merely following state guidelines for curriculum.
“California state standards require the study of our state,” Eckhardt told WND. “We’re required to describe the social, political, cultural and economic life and interactions among the people of California from pre-Columbian societies to Meso-American societies. As you know, California has a significant Latino population, and this helps build an understanding between the two major cultural groups in our community.”
Eckhardt estimates the Latino population at McNear approaches 15 – 20 percent and said “Spanish is heard on any street at any time in our city.” She added that the event also serves as a vehicle for parental involvement because it was designed and will be attended by parents.
USJF rejects the school’s effort to “paint” the event as purely cultural: “This particular celebration is inextricably tied to religion and certain sectarian Catholic views concerning dead people. …Your institution cannot simply separate culture and religion.”
Asked about her response to the USJF letter, Eckhardt said: “We are getting advice from county counsel and teachers, and I will respond to all the questions raised. I’m confident [USJF] will be satisfied with our responses.”
When pressed on the distinction between learning about the pre-Columbian culture and holiday and actually participating in the ritual via the altar and the photographs of dead relatives and “symbolic items,” Eckhardt said this portrayal was “inaccurate” but would not elaborate.
“When we’re teaching young children, it’s often an educational method to role play to study cultural beliefs,” she added.
Eckhardt then indicated that the planned activities were going to be different from those described in the materials sent to parents, but, again, she would not elaborate.
“Teachers are meeting tomorrow to discuss changes to the schedule of events. This is a work in progress,” she said.
California education code requires parental permission for classroom activities or discussion pertaining to family values, morality and religious themes. As USJF points out, neither of the two letters earmarked for parents seeks their permission.
Eckhardt assured WND that permission will be sought.