Friday, December 08, 2006

Debating Equal Access On Campus: Paganizing Yuletide

A firestorm of controversy has broken out in one Virginia school district where a Pagan group has distributed flyers at several campuses inviting children to attend "a Pagan Ritual to celebrate Yule."
A public-school handout urging young children in Virginia to attend a "Pagan ritual" tomorrow to "celebrate Yule" is sparking objections from concerned parents.

"Amazing – government schools ban orthodox Christianity, but allow an openly pagan organization to proselytize six-year-olds!" one observer who asked for anonymity told WND.

The concern has risen to such a level that the head of the Albemarle district in Charlottesville, Va., admits the policy allowing handouts may change, potentially eliminating them from all organizations.

The flyer in question is from a group called NatureSpirit from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that also teaches "Exploring Islam," "Women Weaving Wisdom," "Discovering the Healing Power of Dreams" and other religious subjects.

The specific promotion that went from teachers and principals to elementary-age students in the district states:

"Happy Holidays? Have you ever wondered what 'Holidays' refers to? Everyone knows about Christmas – but what else are people celebrating in December? Why do we celebrate the way we do?

"Find out!" the brochure continues. "Come to Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church ... . We'll have an educational program for childeren (sic) of all ages (and their adults), where we'll explore the traditions of December and their origins, followed by a Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule."

The banner also displays three symbols: a cross, a Star of David and a pentagram – a star enclosed in a circle – often associated with paganism, witches groups such as Wicca, and even Satanism.

On their website, the sponsors say: "Nature Spirit welcomes diverse people of all ages and religious traditions who feel Nature is a vital part of spirituality. They affirm the spiritual teachings of earth-centered and Pagan traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of Nature."

School Board chairwoman Sue Friedman told WND the flyer was distributed because the school was forced to do so, following a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Maryland.

The ruling concluded if one community group were allowed to use a flyer-distribution program at a school, then all groups must be given the same access. The group initiating that case objected to a policy that allowed school officials to arbitrarily discriminate against groups they did not like – in that instance, a Christian organization.

The district even made a policy adjustment this fall in order to accommodate that ruling, Friedman said.

"In order to allow the YMCA to tell you about their soccer league, or the Boy Scouts to tell you about their new troop, we have to allow all nonprofits," she said. "That's why we're seeing this flyer."

However, she noted, "that doesn't mean that policy will stay. We've had some real concerns from parents, who don't understand why we would [distribute this]."

Though she didn't reveal numbers, she indicated the concern was enough to attract attention.

Even though the flyer carries a disclaimer that it's not endorsed by the school, "parents think of things that come home to them as somehow being school-sanctioned," Friedman said.

She said it's an issue that has to be worked out in the community stretching over 742 square miles, but ranges from the eclectic University of Virginia neighborhoods in the city to rural communities where there are only 150 students in a school and the roads aren't paved.

Alternatives, she said, are to ban all flyers, or simply allow only those created by school and government officials.

"We were very clear this [policy] was a trial run to see how it went," Friedman said.

The reasoning to allow flyers on a wide range of issues was that in the smaller schools, those facilities provide a core for the community, and to eliminate that as a "communication vehicle" could leave children without information about some opportunities they would have, she said.

But with the current policy, there will be more and more such brochures for her schools to distribute, she noted.

The church website for the flyer sponsor includes information that a recent sermon was "Do We Believe in Sin?" while another was "Here Be Dragons: Approaching the Unknown."

During 2005-2006, the school handled 97 flyer distribution requests, ranging from children's theater and Cub Scouts to summer camps, swimming and softball leagues.

In the appellate opinion from Maryland, Judge Diana Motz concluded giving school officials "unbridled discretion to deny access to the oft-used forum – for any reason at all, including antipathy to a particular viewpoint – does not ensure the requisite viewpoint neutrality."

In that case, the school board specifically wanted a policy allowing teachers to hand out flyers from groups school officials liked, but that would ban flyers from Christian Evangelism Fellowship.

And that is precisely what the court concluded could not be allowed.
There is more to read in the entire article. (Don't miss the list of "suggested activities to re-paganize Christmastime.")

Down here in California's "Imperial" Valley, there is a small pagan community, but their activities are very low-key
See our latest EduPosts here and this date's Extra Credit Reading there.