Board Backs Off In War on Solstice

The school board in Petoskey, Mich., reversed itself after a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint about the board’s decision to substitute “Christmas break” for “Winter holiday break” on the school calendar.

The board had voted unanimously in closed session to make the change from “winter” to “Christmas” eight days after the board treasurer, Jack Waldvogel, sent an inflammatory e-mail to district staff and board members. Either make the change voluntarily, Waldvogel said, “or I will make a motion to change it at the NEXT Board meeting, and raise such a stink, and bring out every redneck Christian Conservative north of Clare, to compel the District to do so.” (See Waldvogel’s entire e-mail below.)

“Changing the wording to Christmas break so that Petoskey school children know that ‘we are a Christian nation’ violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence,” said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, in an Aug. 25 letter to the district.

The board released a statement Aug. 31 that said it “will not continue with its plan to change the name of Winter Break to Christmas Break. Upon reviewing the legality of this change in light of Mr. Waldvogel’s e-mail of Aug. 10, 2009, it is the opinion of this board, along with legal counsel, that the school district would not be successful in court if challenged.”

The statement continued: “The ability or right to change the wording is not at issue. It is well-settled that schools have the right to refer to the break as Christmas. Christmas is a federal holiday and the vacation period can be named as such, as has been traditionally accepted. However, it is also well-established that government actions (including public school boards) must have a secular purpose for their actions (based on a finding in the federal court case Lemon v. Kurtzman). The change to ‘Christmas break’ cannot be initiated or driven based on a religious agenda. This board does not wish to expend the district’s limited resources on legal issues which in all likelihood would not be successful.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-president, said the board made the right decision. “Look at the first six letters of ‘Christmas.’ If that isn’t about Christianity, what is? Not everyone in Petoskey is religious or even Christian.” Co-president Dan Barker said all people who favor separation of church and state should “feel free to break out the champagne. Rebecca Kratz, our staff attorney, has another legal victory.” See offending e-mail below:

Sent: Monday, August 10, 2009 1:48 PM
Subject: Re: Calendar 09-10

“If we can still call Thanksgiving Break, Thanksgiving Break, just exactly who are we thanking? I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that I guess it’s God. Now, if God, can be inserted into Thanksgiving either directly or indirectly, why must we refer to Christmas Break as the ‘Winter Holiday Break?’ God is okay for Thanksgiving, but not for the birth of his Son?

“Frankly, I’m personally offended by this, and feel incredible regret for whomever comes up with this stuff. I think political correctness is just so much crap, and we have gone way overboard. We are, in spite of what the Obamessiah proclaims, STILL a Christian nation, founded on Judeo Christian principles. God is included in every State Constitution, and His name is embedded on every Federal Building in Washington, DC.

“Two choices here for our school district. . . either agree to change the “December vacation” back to ‘Christ­mas Break,’ in ALL future publications (including the school calendar) voluntarily, or I will make a motion to change it at the NEXT Board meeting, and raise such a stink, and bring out every redneck Christian Conservative north of Clare, to compel the District to do so. The press will love this one… TV, Radio, and the print media. We may go Statewide with this one. I’m not in the least interested what our school lawyers might think of this, they can celebrate or fail to celebrate however they wish.

“Our children need to know that we are a Christian nation and taking all reference to a higher being out of our educational vocabulary is wrong. Let the Ramadamians and the Kwanzan­ians bring their celebrations to school too . . . to share with our Christian children, but don’t cut God out of the school completely. Madalyn Murray O’Hare [sic], the heretic, has been dead for years.
“Don’t assume this is a joke. . . I’m being as serious as I possibly can here.

Jack Waldvogel”

Freedom From Religion Foundation