Students were told to remove one of several holiday symbols on Reno High windows
Bright slogans wished students “Happy Holidays” and “Have a Great Winter Break!” Even a summery sun was painted near the words, “Jamaica Me Crazy.”
But the decorated doors at Reno High School last week didn’t portray a Hanukkah menorah. During the school’s annual window-decorating event, one student hand-painted the decorative candleholder that signifies the annual Jewish holiday. But the symbol was removed after a faculty adviser suggested that the students stay away from religious themes.
The angel, the star and the Christmas trees remained.
“It bugged me,” said student Mina Etcheverry, the Reno High School yearbook editor. Etcheverry attended the event and saw the menorah before it was removed. “I thought we should do something that included everybody …. Or not include anything of any sort.”
It bothered Etcheverry so much that she wrote a letter to her school’s newspaper.
“I know last year we were able to decorate the front doors with what symbolized us, the students that make up this great school,” Etcheverry wrote in the Dec. 21 issue of Red & Blue. “Although I am not Jewish, I’m still offended. … I feel that all cultures should be displayed.”
The high school’s policy is generally to stay away from religious symbolism in favor of a generic winter break theme, said principal Jan Ross, who was out of town during the decorating event.
“I can’t believe that there’s anybody who’d say no to [a menorah],” she said. “But what we usually do is generally snowmen and ‘Happy Holidays.’ We try to stay away from symbols, because if we do one and then the other—who do we leave out?”
Instead, students misunderstood instructions. The menorah was out. But the angel and the star escaped the religious radar.
Perhaps some of the window decorators were trying to make a statement about censorship when they drew a red-suited fat guy with the slogan: “It’s SA**A!”
Reno High junior Jacqueline Castel said that she was disgusted when she read about the incident in Etcheverry’s letter.
“I was extremely annoyed and appalled at the constant displays of hypocrisy,” Castel said in an e-mail to the RN&R. “How can RHS perform a fall play of The Diary of Anne Frank and then turn around and instruct students not to draw any menorahs on the so-called ‘holiday’ window display while passing out ‘Jesus Loves You’ candy canes?”
If the doors of Reno High didn’t reflect student diversity, the student newspaper made up for the lack. Besides Etcheverry’s letter to the editor, the Dec. 21 issue contained menorahs galore, a story about Kwanzaa and another about holiday traditions around the world.
“We are such a diverse school,” said journalism teacher Dan Halcomb, adviser to the Red & Blue staff. “We have Goths, jocks, guys with mohawks—and they co-exist very peacefully on this campus.”
But even the student newspaper staffers were divided on the subject of what to include in their special holiday issue. Some wanted a Christmas tree. They wanted to dub the issue the Red & Green, giving the nod to the holiday colors. But to others, Red & Green seemed too suggestive of a traditional Christian holiday. In the end, the students tried for a compromise that would please the squeakiest wheels.
Student design editor Rachael Baez called the result “too politically correct.”
“It seemed almost to exclude Christianity,” Halcomb said. “They were trying not to offend anybody.”
That trees, wreaths or the colors red and green could suggest that the school endorses Christianity seemed far-fetched, she said.
“The spirituality went out of Christmas long ago,” Halcomb said.
Senior reporter Jordan Burge agreed.
“Christmas as a religion and Christmas as a holiday are completely different,” Burge said.
The boundaries between free speech, censorship and separation of church and state are blurry, especially in a public school.
“We’re right in the middle of it,” Halcomb said. “Yes, you have separation of church and state. But these kids don’t check their beliefs at the door when they walk in.”
Earlier this year, the local Jewish community was upset when a history teacher at Vaughn Middle School hung a German battle flag with the Nazi insignia in her classroom during a unit on World War II.
After meeting with leaders in the Jewish community, the teacher agreed to remove the flag from where it hung in the middle of the classroom. Instead, the flag was put on a bulletin board in the classroom. Teacher Kara Lake was told to take the flag down at the end of each school day and to remove the flag as soon as the unit was complete.
Certain forms of religious expression shouldn’t be allowed in schools at all, said Kendall Stagg, Northern Nevada coordinator for the ACLU.
Stagg called the rejection of a menorah—coupled with the failure to remove other religious symbols—"blatantly biased and totally unfair.”
“I find it appalling,” Stagg said.
The Supreme Court gives a constitutional stamp of approval to governmental holiday displays for Christmas and Hanukkah, according to the Washoe County School District’s handbook. The section of the school district handbook, “Symbols, Artifacts and Objects with Holiday Themes,” includes a handwritten correction that cancels out approval for “nativity scenes” in favor of “Christmas trees.”
But public schools may be subject to even stricter scrutiny.
In schools, religious symbols with secular significance were approved only if the symbolic message isn’t construed to be an endorsement of the religion to an “objective observer,” using a test formulated in 1989 by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner.
“With more than 1,500 different religious bodies and 360,000 churches, mosques and synagogues, the U.S. is the most religiously diverse, and one of the most devout countries in the world,” Stagg said. “Because of the separation of church and state, we Americans enjoy unparalleled religious liberty. Unfortunately, some people try to legitimatize sectarian strife under the guise of separation of church and state.”
After talking with school administrators, Etcheverry said she thought the window-decorating instructions were simply misunderstood. Religious symbolism should have been avoided altogether.
“That’s what the [advisers] were trying to get the kids to do,” she concluded. “But I wasn’t even clear on the instructions.”
Halcomb said the newspaper staff learned a lesson from the debate.
“I think they found out something—people are offended no matter what you do,” Halcomb said.
The student paper’s arts and entertainment editor Brian Rowe agreed. His contribution to the holiday issue of the student newspaper was an innocuous list of classic movies to rent during winter break—safe territory, unless you passionately favor It’s a Wonderful Life over National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
"It almost gets to the point where you want to discard the holiday issue altogether," Rowe said.