A public-interest law firm says a lawsuit to stop a “Day of the Dead” celebration at a California public school “appears imminent” after school-district officials refused to cancel the event, despite receiving a “cease and desist” letter from the firm sent on behalf of a concerned parent.
In response to the concern raised by the United States Justice Foundation, or USJF, the school adjusted its planned classroom activities and is belatedly seeking permission from parents for their children’s participation. It also is offering them limited opportunity to view a videotape to be shown to the students as part of the celebration. USJF maintains the last-minute efforts fail to comply with California education code.
As WorldNetDaily reported, fourth-graders at McNear Elementary in Petaluma, Calif., will be observing the traditional Meso-American holiday, El Dia de los Muertos, with classroom activities now scheduled to run tomorrow through Friday.
According to an Oct. 11 letter sent to parents by the public-school teachers, obtained by WorldNetDaily, the 9-year-olds were slated to be “putting together an ofrenda with symbolic items” and were to be “bringing in a picture and write up fond memories about a deceased family member, friend or pet.” While the letter defined “ofrenda” as “remembrance table,” an accompanying flier defined it as an “altar.”
USJF objected to the event on the grounds that the school’s sponsorship amounted to an endorsement of particular religious views in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The foundation argued the references to “altar,” “symbolic items,” “remembrance” and “welcoming death” were “religious themes” that indicated the event is intended to be a practical application of “spiritual and religious themes.”
McNear principal Clare Eckhardt denied the event is unconstitutional and maintains the school is merely following state guidelines for curriculum, which require, according to Eckhardt, the study of “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 told WorldNetDaily.
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 masks and dancing on their graves 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. They also eat sugar skulls. The skulls symbolize death and rebirth.
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.”
El Dia de los Muertos was eventually moved to coincide with the Christian holiday “All Saints’ Day,” which is celebrated on Nov. 1.
In response to USJF’s “cease and desist” letter, school attorney Robert Henry offered assurances that “students will be learning about the holiday, not observing it or celebrating it.”
Specifically, according to Henry:
“Students will not be making altars” but will “hear about and see examples (in an educational video) of how altars are used in Day of the Dead traditions.”
“Students will not celebrate loved ones’ lives in the context of Day of the Dead rituals or religious practices.”
“Students are not required to bring pictures of dead relatives and animals.”
“Offerings are not being made” but “students will learn about the traditional cultural uses of flowers, food and other symbolic artifacts.”
“Students are not directed to create art with religious themes” but “will, on the afternoon of Oct. 31, be given choices to include: masks, jumping ‘mariachi style’ skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls.”
Henry further states in his letter that “no student will be forced to participate in any activity that parents feel may be in conflict with the personal beliefs of the family” and “alternate activities will be provided.”
The assurances don’t assuage one concerned parent who still intends to keep her daughter out of class during the four-day event.
“What’s changed? They’re still going to talk about dead relatives,” she told WND. “They’re semantically getting around practicing the ritual by calling the table where the photographs and everything will be put a ‘remembrance table’ rather than ‘altar’ and calling them ‘symbolic items’ instead of ‘offerings.’”
In fact, a letter sent home with students on Friday updating parents on the Day of the Dead activities states students will be “invited, but not required, to bring in a photo or picture of a loved one who has died.” The letter further describes that children will be learning about “the cultural use of symbolic artifacts and the various craft activities that the Mexicans take part in as they honor death as a part of the cycle of life.” The “symbolic artifacts” and “craft activities” presumably relate to the “masks, jumping ‘mariachi style’ skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls” referenced in Henry’s letter.
A call to Eckhardt for more specifics was not returned.
USJF litigation counsel Richard Ackerman told WND, “A judge would buy into this semantical work-around. But [our action] puts them on notice. They’re in a tough ‘catch-22.’ … We’ll see how much they care about the Constitution when Christmas gets here,” he added.
In his e-mailed response to Henry, Ackerman wrote: “We do have serious reservations about your decision to continue presenting the children with actual objects that DO have religious significance to adherents of the religions and cultures that celebrate the Day of the Dead (skulls, marigolds, etc.). To suggest that these items do not have religious significance to Latino-Americans is an insult to their cultural values.”
“The district appears to evade the real issue here,” continued Ackerman, “I believe that we would have to agree as to the inseparable nature of religion and culture. Because of this fact, we will be very closely monitoring the district as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and other events come up. Naturally, we expect that you … will give the children equal access to the cultural symbols of these celebrations as well (Nativity scenes, crosses, and other such cultural symbols). … The district cannot engage in content-based discrimination or cultural preference.”
More concerning than the equal-access issue to USJF and the parent WND spoke to, however, is the planned use of the “educational video,” which, according to a handful of parents who have viewed it, contains sexually explicit and obscene language and is overall “inappropriate” for children.
“If the parents saw this video, all hell would break loose,” one parent told WND.
The problem is parents will have limited opportunity to view the excerpts teachers plan to show the classroom. Friday’s letter offers two viewing periods for today at 3:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.
California education code requires parental permission for classroom activities or discussion pertaining to family values, morality and religious themes. The letter sent home with the 9-year-olds Friday also provides for parents to indicate their permission with a signature.
But according to Ackerman, both the last-minute and limited review period, as well as the reliance on the children to deliver the permission slips home violates California education code.
“A lawsuit appears imminent,” Ackerman told WND.
One mother scoffs at the notion of alternate activities being offered to parents who object to the Day of the Dead event: “Of course they can’t require the kids to do any of these activities, but parents are too afraid of being called freaks if they pull their children out,” she said.