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'Day of the Dead' event
outlives lawsuit

Posted By Diana Lynne On 10/31/2002 @ 4:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

Fourth-graders at a California public elementary school will commemorate dead relatives and pets in class today in observance of “El Dia de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead,” after a judge ruled yesterday the activities represent an acceptable “cultural event” and pose no “irreparable harm” for students.

In a hearing devoid of all basic procedure, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano
rejected a motion by the United States Justice Foundation, or USJF, filed on
behalf of a concerned parent to stop the three-day series of activities planned for the 9-year-olds at McNear Elementary School in Petaluma, Calif.

Judge Giordano rendered his decision through a court clerk without a court reporter present, without hearing oral arguments and before case pleadings were filed, according to the public-interest law firm.

“I think he rubber-stamped what the district wanted,” USJF litigation counsel Richard Ackerman told WorldNetDaily. “You’ve got a network of politically correct leaders in this area and no judge is going to step on any local agency even though this ruling is inconsistent with United States Supreme
Court and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decisions,” he said.

As WorldNetDaily reported, although
administrators and teachers at McNear modified the planned social studies lessons, they chose to ignore
a “cease and desist” letter sent by USJF.

According to an Oct. 11 letter sent home to parents, students were slated to “celebrate” the traditional
Meso-American holiday by putting together altars with “symbolic items” and were to be bringing in a picture of a deceased family member, friend or pet in accordance with the traditional “ritual.”

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.”

In response to USJF’s “cease and desist” letter, the teachers altered the planned schedule of events, and showed a video of people making offerings at altars in place of having the students build them. Officials also stressed in an Oct. 25 letter to parents that students were merely invited, but not required,
to bring in photographs of deceased persons to share in today’s classroom discussion. This afternoon, the youngsters will be making crafts that include “masks, jumping ‘mariachi style’ skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls,”

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 violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The lawsuit additionally pointed 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 Christian mother who told WND she objects to the
“strong-arm” approach the school is taking to push the “indoctrination” of particular religious beliefs. Bricker says she contacted USJF only after her complaints to the school principal and district superintendent were ignored. The only accomodation made by the school was to place Bricker’s daughter in a different classroom.

“There’s no way around calling it a religious event,” Bricker told WND. “They’re talking about afterlife
and viewing a video that shows people making offerings at altars, and talks about spirits of the dead visiting. Death is a personal thing that should be taught at home,” she added.

“The case law is not gray in this area,” said Ackerman. “All you have to ask is, ‘Are the altars, the marigolds, the sugar skulls and the other symbolic items religious symbols?’”

McNear principal Clare Eckhardt denies 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.”

District superintendent Carl Wong backs Eckhardt’s position, calling the teaching units “educationally sound” and in compliance with both California education code and the local governing board’s policy.

Wong told WND he’s pleased with Giordano’s ruling.

“We do the best we can to try to maintain balance relevant to the complexity surrounding the religious
and cultural diversity of students. We act on good faith,” he said.

“It’s not like we can show video of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and have a captive
audience,” countered Bricker. “Christians are put down and are meant to feel inferior. What they’re doing
is trying to wear Christians down.”

Bricker plans to appeal. Ackerman vows to take the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.

USJF is also considering a lawsuit against the city of Petaluma for using tax dollars to help fund its citywide “Day of the Dead” celebration, which includes erecting altars at City Hall and the public library, as well as 25 other locations, according to href="http://www.petalumaartscouncil.org/">The Petaluma Arts Council, which organized the event.


Earlier stories:

‘District sued over ‘Day of the Dead’

‘Day of the Dead’ event still alive

4th-graders to ‘celebrate’ the dead

Related stories:

District sued over Islam studies

Islam studies spark hate mail, lawsuits

Islam studies required in California district

Related special offers:

Combating secularism

The Christian Curriculum

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