Originally created 12/16/00

Schools take care around Christmas



How do our local school systems celebrate the season?

Very carefully.

At school Christmas parties, teachers and officials must carefully wrestle with the issue of separating church and state.

But it can be done, they say.

"We try to give our schools the best advice we can on what you can and can't do within the First Amendment and separation of church and state," said Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price.

"Basically, it provides for various presentations regarding religions, as long as there is somewhat a secular approach to it. It's more of an educational thing, rather than trying to promulgate a particular belief or a particular religion. You can't advocate one religion over another, but you can talk about various customs and practices."

As a parent and a practicing Jehovah's Witness, Leon Gentry has to deal with such issues every year. According to Watchtower.org, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25, that Jesus never commanded Christians to celebrate his birth and that Christmas and its customs come from pagan religions.

Jehovah's Witness is just one of many denominations and faiths that do not celebrate the birth of Christ, but their children study in the same classrooms with Christmas trees, carols and parties.

"We respect the diversity of others, and generally speaking that has been the case with the school system. The teachers are generally cooperative in that regard," said Mr. Gentry, who has a child in an area high school.

When the school has had Christmas parties, he usually checks his child out of school early. And sometimes there have been graded assignments relating to Christmas that a teacher will substitute with others. The key is communication between parents and school officials, he said.

"Our experience is that the school system is most cooperative," Mr. Gentry said. "It is important to have good communication with the teacher and outline what your beliefs are."

In Richmond and Columbia counties, school officials say they rarely have complaints, and manage to handle special circumstances on a case-by-case basis. And in Richmond County, class Christmas parties are held only at the elementary school level.

"Parents who may not want their children to participate in Christmas parties or things like that, they have a couple of options," said Donald Porter, Richmond County Board of Education public information officer. "The parents could pick their children up if they don't want them to participate - there's plenty of notice given - or the children could go to the library to be taken out of the party setting. We get very few complaints; that's not something we hear a lot about. It's just dealt with on a case-by-case basis as it comes up."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.