Is Santa a religious icon and who decides?

| 29 Sep 2011 | 10:32

    School’s breakfast with Santa draws ire from parent, By Linda Smith Hancharick Warwick, N.Y. — Frosty the Snowman is sharing top billing this year with Santa at Sanfordville, N.Y. Elementary School’s annual “Breakfast with Santa.” But the event won’t be billed as “Breakfast with Santa” anymore. This year, the theme has been changed to a “Winter Wonderland Breakfast,” sparked by one parent wanting to exclude religious inference and include all students. That parent, who did not wish for her name to be used because she wanted to shield her school-age children from any fallout from her stand, said she and others in the community were offended by the PTA sponsoring an event geared toward one religion. She said that Santa is a religious figure, a figure that represents Christmas, a Christian holiday, and that a public school, by law, is not allowed to do that. When committee members agreed to change the “Breakfast with Santa” to a Winter Wonderland Breakfast and include Hanukah traditions, the parent said she felt this still wasn’t fair because it included religious traditions. “This shouldn’t be just for one person or two person’s religions,” she said. “I wanted to represent all, not just a few.” That would be impossible to do, according to Dr. Frank Greenhall, superintendent of Warwick schools. “It would be impossible to cover all religions,” he said. “But when you say ‘Breakfast with Santa’, he only does deliveries on Christmas. That is not inclusive. But I don’t see how we can cover all religions.” In a letter to Greenhall, attorney Kathy Ann Wolvorton of Girvin & Ferlazzo, PC, advised that the PTA stick to a more neutral theme in order to avoid litigation. “The District should, at a minimum, modify the events to avoid potential litigation,” noted the letter. It is in the District’s interest, Wolvorton continued, to provide a more neutral atmosphere. The PTA members who have planned this event counter that while Santa is a symbol of Christmas, he is not a religious figure at all. Lisa Roca is a member of the breakfast committee. She researched it and came up with the conclusion that Santa is a secular figure, not a religious one. “Santa is not a religious figure,” said Roca. “He is a mythical character. Many churches try to take Santa out of Christmas because he is secular, not religious. Their Christmas plays have nothing to do with Santa.” Still, he represents Christmas and that is a religious holiday. Greenhall said he would take the blame for this ever coming to pass. “When I reviewed the calendar in July, I should have caught the ‘Breakfast with Santa,’” said Greenhall, who volunteered at the meeting to dress up as Frosty himself in an effort to resolve the situation. Last Friday morning, Greenhall consulted with the lawyers yet again, proposing the compromise that Frosty the Snowman would appear at the event as well as Santa. The lawyers agreed that having Frosty and Santa would make the event more inclusive. Still, members of the PTA were adamant that the event, which is scheduled for December 9, is a success in large part because of Santa. And, since the event is on a Saturday and attendance is optional, no one is being discriminated against. Santa is the big draw, said Darlene Baratto, chair of the event. Eliminating his appearance would take away what many kids come for. “We do things to raise money for our kids,” said Baratto. “No one has to go to anything yet they still enjoy the fruits of the events. The draw for the fundraiser is Santa, a picture with Santa. We have a beautiful background people can have a picture in front of. That wasn’t good enough. We changed the name, colors, the background. Nothing made her happy. She was not open to anything. We’ll have 300 or so kids who are disappointed.” Greenhall said he has to go with what the attorney recommends. “If you say yes to Santa tonight I will have to do more research, call the board, spend money,” said Greenhall. “The board may turn around and say ‘sorry PTA, we can’t rent you the space.’ Think about this: If you haven’t walked in their shoes, you don’t know.” He also said he doesn’t believe the kids would be disappointed if Santa isn’t there. “If you make it an issue, the kids will make it an issue,” he said. PTA member Karen Kaytes was disappointed with the message being sent. “This is a microcosm of what is happening in our society as a whole,” said Kaytes. “No two of us is alike. Any event is going to offend somebody. As a society, we should strive to learn about each other. To allow the minority to make the rules, slowly squeezes the joy out of all of our events.” Scott Bamberger thought this would be a great opportunity to learn about other people, rather than eliminate the traditions. “Isn’t that the great thing about America?” asked Bamberger. “We have all different religions. With the separation of church and state, you must know the content of the law and the intent of the law. I see the next step coming—the Village of Warwick will not be able to put up lights soon. It is sad. This takes the joy out of the season.” That certainly wasn’t the purpose of the woman who spoke up. Her husband attended the PTA meeting and read a letter that his wife had sent to Greenhall. “I look forward to sponsoring an event that is within the law and inclusive of all,” said the parent. “This is not an argument about religion; it is about the law of our land. Discrimination is simply detestable.” The day after the PTA meeting, the parent spoke with the Courier’s sister paper, The Warwick Advertiser. “This is a matter of following the law of our country,” she said. “It is sad that no one ever questioned this event before this.” She said she suggested having a winter party, no Santa, but Frosty, making snowmen, snowflakes, snow cones—something that would include every child. “It could have been a wonderful, new tradition,” she said. Last year, she said she was disheartened by the PTA which basically said to her there aren’t enough people against this to require a change. “I sat back and didn’t do anything and I was ashamed of myself,” she said. “I know I’m doing right.” Diane Tomko, Sanfordville’s PTA president, said she is happy with the compromise reached. The breakfast will take place and more people will be included. “I am happy that because parents were willing to research the issues and share their information and opinions so openly and honestly, and our principal and superintendent were willing to listen and reconsider, our children will now have the opportunity to have twice as much magical fun rather than none at all this year at the Winter Wonderland Breakfast.”