Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A public-interest law firm has filed suit in federal court alleging that a “Holiday Displays” policy for New York City public schools is discriminatory against the Christian religion.
In its suit, the Thomas More Law Center said the district’s policy “unlawfully discriminates against Christians” because it “prohibits the display of [Christian] Nativity scenes” in public schools during Christmas, while it “expressly permits and encourages” the display of the Jewish Menorah and the Islamic Star and Crescent during certain religious holidays and observances.
Officials at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based law center said the suit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for eastern New York on behalf of Andrea Skoros, who has two children in the city’s public school system. Skoros and her children are Roman Catholics.
Last year, a public school attended by Skoros’ son displayed the Jewish Menorah and the Islamic Star and Crescent, but no Nativity scene. School officials dismissed requests for display of the Nativity scene, said Brian Burch, a spokesman for the law center.
The suit names the City of New York, Department of Education Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and “another school official” who was not identified by the law center.
The center said NYC education officials claim the goal of the policy is “to promote understanding and respect for the diverse beliefs and customs relating to our community’s observance of the winter holiday.”
Published accounts said the school district’s written policy allows only “secular holiday symbols.”
“Such symbols include, but are not limited to, Christmas trees, Menorahs, and the Star and the Crescent,” the policy states, according to CNSNews.com. “Holiday displays shall not appear to promote or celebrate any single religion or holiday. Therefore, any symbol or decoration which may be used must be displayed simultaneously with other symbols or decorations reflecting different beliefs or customs.”
NYC education officials did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
Richard Thompson, lead attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, said the policy shows an “indifference” and “hostility” to Christians during their most holy season.
“The policy relegates Christians to second-class citizens,” said Thompson. “Forcing schools to only allow secular symbols for Christmas while allowing religious symbols for other religions’ holiday observances shows a callous indifference and hostility toward Christians during one of their holiest seasons.”
The center’s legal action follows criticism of the policy leveled against NYC schools last year by the Catholic League, the nation’s largest Catholic civil-rights group.
In December 2001, Catholic League President William Donohue criticized a memo issued by Dr. Fran Levy, principal of the Thomas Jefferson Magnet School of Humanities in Flushing, N.Y., directing teachers to bring religious symbols to school that represent Kwanzaa and the Islamic and Jewish religions.
The memo did not include Christian symbols, with the exception of a Christmas tree, which Donohue said was a secular symbol.
“It is outrageous that New York City public-school officials allow some religious symbols in the schools every December while banning others,” Donohue said in a statement yesterday. “Catholics are sick and tired of being discriminated against by bureaucrats who tell us we should be satisfied with a Christmas tree in the schools.
“All we want is parity with Jews and Muslims,” he added.
The Catholic League maintains that the Jewish Menorah and the Islamic Star and Crescent are religious symbols rather than secular displays, and therefore the school district should permit displays of the Christian Nativity scene, which depicts the birth of Jesus.
Thompson said the scope of the Christian religion in the U.S. merits attention, especially during this season.
“It is ironic that a religion enjoying the largest following in this nation is consigned by the city of New York to a least-favored status,” he said. “It’s a shame that we have reached a point in our nation’s history that ‘respect for diverse beliefs and customs’ has come to mean discrimination against Christians – at Christmastime, no less.”