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A public-interest law firm has filed a lawsuit to stop the classroom activities of fourth-graders at a Petaluma, Calif., public elementary school planned in observance of “El Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the
As WorldNetDaily reported Monday, although
administrators and teachers at McNear Elementary School modified the planned lessons, they chose to ignore a “cease and desist” letter sent by the United States Justice Foundation, or USJF.
USJF argues in the lawsuit that McNear Elementary and the Petaluma City School District are violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by promoting religion. The suit additionally points out that the planned “Day of the Dead” activities also violate the district’s own policies which state that: “School sponsored programs shall not be, nor have the effect of being, religiously oriented or a religious celebration.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kathy Bricker, a mother who is raising her fourth-grade daughter according to her Christian beliefs. Bricker contacted USJF only after her complaints to the school
principal and district superintendent were ignored.
“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,” Bricker told WorldNetDaily.
WND reported that according to an Oct. 11 letter sent home to parents, the 9-year-olds were slated to “celebrate” the traditional Meso-American holiday by “putting together an ofrenda,” which was defined in an accompanying flier as an “altar,” with
“symbolic items” and were to be “bringing in a picture and write up fond memories about a deceased
family member, friend or pet.”
According to the written handouts provided to parents, the traditional “Day of the Dead” celebration is a “ritual event in which the spirits of dead loved ones are invited to visit the living as honored guests” and reflects the ancient Aztec belief that death is a part of life. As the handouts describe, “families often set up
ofrendas or altars, bearing pictures, lighted candles and traditional items including marigolds, bread, fruit,
and favorite foods of deceased family members.”
The foundation argued the references in these materials sent to parents to “altars,” “symbolic items,”
“remembrance” and “welcoming death” were “religious themes” that indicated the event was intended to be a practical application of “spiritual and religious themes.”
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.”
McNear teachers then sent an Oct. 25 letter home with students providing parents with an “update of fourth-grade students’ activities related to El Dia de los Muertos.” This letter abandoned its earlier language indicating students would “celebrate” the holiday. Instead, over the course of three days, the
children would be viewing parts of a documentary film on the “ancient origins of the celebration, current celebrations in Mexico plus San Francisco adaptations including a classroom experience.”
The students, according to the letter, would also be invited, but not required, to bring in a photograph of a deceased loved one or pet. They would also learn
about the “cultural use of symbolic artifacts” and then participate in the various craft activities that Mexicans take part in. Students would be given choices to include creating “masks, jumping ‘mariachi style’ skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls,” according to Henry’s letter.
To the Aztecs, skulls symbolized death and rebirth.
The Oct. 25 letter sent home with the students sought permission from parents for their child’s participation in the planned activities and offered them limited opportunity to review the video clips to be shown in class. These gestures, made subsequent to USJF’s “cease and desist” letter and WND’s inquiry, fall short of complying with California education code, according to USJF, which requires parental
permission for classroom activities or discussion pertaining to family values, morality and religious themes.
Sugar-coating a religious holiday?
“There is no neutral way for [Petaluma City Schools] to ‘celebrate’ the ‘Day of the Dead,'” states
USJF in its lawsuit, pointing out that the school’s own materials admit that “Day of the Dead” is associated with “Christian Holy Days.” USJF also argues the video shown to students contains graphic
depictions and objects bearing religious significance to those who practice rituals associated with the “Day of the Dead,” including pictures of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” sexual references made about the living and the dead, and testimonies and descriptions of religious beliefs held by persons interviewed on the videotape.
To help the court in its determination of whether or not a reasonable person would understand the “Day of the Dead” to be religious in nature, USJF submitted dozens of articles that show a wide array of universities, private citizens and local agencies view “Day of the Dead” as essentially religious in nature.
Despite its religious origins, many Hispanic residents of Petaluma and the San Francisco Bay area tell WorldNetDaily that the school is giving students a distorted and warped impression of “Day of the Dead.”
One resident of Mexican heritage who does not wish to be named wrote:
I, too, am appalled at the “Day of the Dead” “festivities” in the Bay Area community and its schools. … The core of those promoting these events are actually white, non-Hispanic liberals and a handful of “Latino artists.” What they celebrate is a caricature of the true “Dia de los Muertos” holiday. These people celebrate as if it’s Mardi Gras. They seem to leave out that in Mexico this solemn holiday is celebrated with Holy Mass, usually at the cemetery. Women recite the Holy Rosary for the Poor Souls
in Purgatory. Men drink alcohol and reminisce; people crying is not a rare sight. Music is always muted. Dances performed, only by indigenous communities, are also solemn and usually part of a liturgy that has incorporated native customs. My family and all Latinos I know find the celebrations performed here as foreign. … Liberals have taken a true religious observance and used it for their own nihilistic reasons.
Richard Ackerman, litigation counsel for USJF, suspects the distortion is all part of the strategy.
“They’ve so distorted the ‘Day of the Dead’ event that they’ve disenfranchised it from its traditional cultural and religious meaning so that they’ll be able to argue that it’s not a religious holiday,” Ackerman said.
“It’s being sugar-coated as a little fiesta,” Bricker agreed.
School officials’ response
McNear principal Clare Eckhardt denies the event is
unconstitutional and maintains the school is merely following state guidelines for curriculum that 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.”
“We’ve not planned an event per se,” Eckhardt stressed, “We’ve planned a series of social studies lessons, some of which have already occurred. … We feel there is a very good curricular as well as
cultural basis for our decision.”
District superintendent Carl Wong is equally unfazed by the lawsuit.
“I stand by and support the principal and the teaching position,” Wong told WND. “My decision is based on the fact that I’ve reviewed the teaching units and find them educationally sound, and in
consultation with our legal counsel, I’m confident that it’s legal under current educational code, as well as our local governing board policy.”
“And as a Petaluma resident,” he added, “I commend the teachers for making the effort to have an
activity that’s inclusive, because we have a significant Latino population.”
In fact, Petaluma is sponsoring an elaborate citywide “Day of the Dead” celebration that began Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 2. As part of the celebration, traditional “Day of the Dead” altars are on display at 27 locations throughout town, including Petaluma City Hall, Petaluma Health Center, Petaluma
Regional Library and the Petaluma Community Center, according to The Petaluma Arts Council, which organized the events along with Abraham Solar, the Hispanic pastoral director for St. Vincent DePaul Church.
“Americans have a little bit of fear about death,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quotes Solar as saying. “This shows we don’t have fear because we make fun of death.”
Solar moved to the United States from Mexico City in 1986 and began organizing “Day of the Dead” events five years ago, reports the Press Democrat.
According to the Art Council’s website, the event is partially underwritten by the city hotel-tax fund and the Petaluma Health Care District.
A hearing on the USJF lawsuit is scheduled in Sonoma County Superior Court for this afternoon.
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