FFRF Intervenes in School Christmas Break Dispute

News Release and Action Alert

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog and the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, has written public school officials in Petoskey, Mich., to object to unconstitutional wording on the school calendar.

On Aug. 18 during a closed session, the school board voted unanimously to change the wording of the school calendar from Winter holiday break” to “Christmas break.” That was 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.” The e-mail also said: “Our children need to know we are a Christian nation and taking all reference to a higher being out of our educational vocabulary is wrong.”

The Foundation, which has more than 400 Michigan members and 13,900 nationwide, was alerted to the situation by a member in Petoskey.

“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 a letter to the district.

The change also violates the principle set down in Lemon v. Kurtzman that requires government action to have a secular purpose, Kratz said. “Mr. Waldvogel’s intent and purpose for recommending the change was based wholly on religion. There is no secular purpose for the change when the school district’s top administrators and elected officials clearly indicate to the public that they want children to know of Christianity and of the existence of a higher being.”

In an Aug. 20 story in the Petoskey News-Review, Superintendent John Scholten said the district will follow the board’s directive. “It will now be called Christmas holiday break,” Scholten said.

Waldvogel told the newspaper he thought his e-mail was only going to the board and administrators and not districtwide. “Unfortunately, it got back to the free world. . . . I certainly would have tempered it if I knew it was being sent to everyone.” He said the e-mail was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek.” (His e-mail ended with: “Don’t assume this is a joke. I’m being as serious as I possibly can here.”)

Waldvogel chairs the Emmet County Republican Party and made news nationally in October 2008 with another e-mail, sent after presidential candidate John McCain pulled out of Michigan: “What a slap in the face to all the thousands of people who have been energized by the addition of Sarah Palin to the ticket,” Waldvogel wrote. “I’ve been involved in County Party politics and organization for 40 years, and this is the biggest dumbass stunt I have ever seen. He has given up on our State? What a total and complete crock of crap.”

The Foundation’s letter to the district also notes that the board’s action illegally advances religion over nonreligion and prefers Christianity over all other faiths: “The previous wording reflected an enlightened respect and viewpoint for the community’s diverse population and the District should restore its original wording on the school calendar.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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