School District Backs Off Christmas Break Change

After the Freedom of Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint Aug. 25 on behalf of a school district patron and the Foundation’s Michigan members, the Petoskey Board of Education reversed its decision to use the term “Christmas break” 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 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.”

The board discussed and agreed on the statement in closed session, Superintendent John Scholten told the Petoskey News-Review.

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.”

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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