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Religion: Old debate resurfaces


A group of parents who want to bring back religious celebrations of the winter holidays at Hillcrest Elementary School has succeeded after a fashion -- and nudged the Baltimore County school system toward developing a policy for observing sacred occasions in secular settings.

The long-simmering discussion over religious holidays at the Catonsville school bubbled up to Superintendent Stuart Berger's office last week, after the parents who wanted religious observances gave the school a mural depicting Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza observances.

That clashed with the school's official practice of not observing the holidays with decorations, parties or gift exchanges -- a practice defended by Linda Cymrot, who says she has worked for the eight years she has had youngsters at the school "to come to a place of comfort for myself and my children." Mrs. Cymrot and her family are Jewish.

Dr. Berger decided that the mural was acceptable, except for a panel containing a Nativity scene, which he said was clearly religious and in violation of the school system's three-page position statement on religion in the public schools.

That statement says schools must "show no preference for one religious faith over another" and must "refrain from the promotion of any and all religious faiths."

The Nativity scene was replaced by a shopping bag full of wrapped gifts, said the mural's creator, Paul Fechko, who has two children at Hillcrest. Dr. Berger permitted a menorah, the nine-branch candelabra that often symbolizes Hanukkah, to remain in the mural, saying he did not consider it a religious symbol.

In addition to working out the compromise, Dr. Berger promised to create a committee in 1994 to look into holiday observances. "There is going to be a policy," he said. "If you can't have a tree in one school, how can you have a tree in another? You can't."

Dr. Berger said the schools have "a good policy . . . and very poor practice. It's all over the place."

He said he hopes to enlist parents, students, teachers, administrators and clergy to develop a new policy that will apply to every school. The policy will not be open to principals' interpretations, as most other policies are now under Dr. Berger's site-based management theory.

Besides having the mural, Hillcrest youngsters learned about Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza traditions in their classes this week, Principal Joe Wilson said. The traditional holiday program will be nonreligious, focusing on peace and brotherhood rather than customs and beliefs.

Fifth-graders will perform "Winter Is the Most Peaceful Season," an operetta written by the school's music teacher.

Because holiday observances are a recurring concern at Hillcrest, Mr. Wilson said, he developed a plan early in the school year that included the winter program and instruction on the three celebrations -- but did not allow decorations and parties.

"Everyone has their own view of what should be. We have to consider all of the children," said Mr. Wilson, who is in his first year as principal at the school. "I think that our approach has been one that most people can live with."

Mrs. Cymrot, however, sees the mural and other holiday trappings as setbacks. "This has been an eight-year discussion. There have been ups and downs. I feel like there has been movement [in previous years] and that some of that movement has slipped away," she said.

"Every year it's a struggle. I just don't want her [Mrs. Cymrot's daughter] to come home feeling hurt and rejected."

Mrs. Cymrot said her concern is not just a Jewish-Christian issue, but one of respect for all cultures, religions and practices, and the messages adults give to children about including and excluding people who are different.

She said she also is concerned about the difference between education and celebration. It's one thing to have a social studies lesson on Christianity and quite another to trim a Christmas tree and sing carols, she said.

"School should be a place where children are given the message that all are welcome. Holiday celebrations give exactly the opposite message. My kids say that others 'treat me like I'm weird' for not observing Christmas," she said.

Mr. Fechko and the dozen or so other parents who led the fight for celebrations said they want to include everyone.

"We are trying to get the point across that there are various celebrations of the holidays. What they were going to do was celebrate winter. That was unacceptable to us," he said.

The group collected more than 100 signatures on a petition asking for "normal presentations." It also designed the mural and enlisted Mr. Fechko to create it. The group did not present the petition because the issue moved quickly from the school to Dr. Berger's office, where it was resolved.

"I'm definitely satisfied with what's up there. I think it fairly represents the whole holiday season," Mr. Fechko said.

Mrs. Cymrot, however, said the Hanukkah and Kwanza panels are smaller and fewer than those representing Christmas. The whole mural sends clear messages, she says: "If you don't celebrate one of the three [holidays], there is no place for you in this school" and "to children who do celebrate Christmas, it's OK to be leaving out others."

Like the Hillcrest discussion, the issue of December celebrations in county schools has a long history.

"Every year this is an issue somewhere," said Evelyn Chatmon, the schools' director of multicultural education.

"It's very difficult. We are attempting to create an awareness that there are people who celebrate the holidays in very different ways and some who don't celebrate at all. In this county, we have many, many different cultures, and we have to respect that."

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