Nebraska’s Candy Cane Controversy

by Church Militant  •  •  December 11, 2018   

Principal of Manchester Elementary bans all Christmas-themed items, placed on leave

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By Victor Penney

The "War on Christmas" has claimed yet another victim.

The battleground this time: an elementary school in Elkhorn, Nebraska.

Heading into the first week of December, the principal of Manchester Elementary, Jennifer Sinclair, sent a memo to staff and parents saying a number of time-honored Christmas traditions would not be "acceptable" on her watch for 2018.

Images of Santa on worksheets? That is a ho-ho-no. Christmas trees in the classrooms? You can chop down that idea. Singing carols? Don't even go there.

Historically, the shape is a 'J' for Jesus.

Those items all made the principal's naughty list and sound pretty typical of the anti-Christmas fare we have grown accustomed to in the news, but the principal set the bar to a new low with this latest holiday taboo: candy canes.

As you might imagine, this has little to do with any health concerns, like the students possibly consuming too much sugar. (Actually, to that point, serving hot chocolate is on the list of "acceptable practices.") So why did principal Sinclair go sour on the traditional candy cane? Because, according to the memo, candy canes are too Christian.

"Historically, the shape is a 'J' for Jesus," the memo says. "The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of [H]is resurrection. This would also include different colored candy canes."

Sinclair wrote she was a bit "uncomfortable" having to get so detailed in the Christmas do's and don'ts:

I know that you all are very kind and conscientious people. I know all of the things that you’d like to do, have done, want to do are coming from such a good place. I come from a place that Christmas and the like are not allowed in schools, as over the years in my educational career, this has evolved into the expectation for all educators. I have unknowingly awoken a "sleeping giant" with many of you. I apologize for the stress that "Christmas/holiday/Grinch/Santa/tree" emails and conversations have caused you. I will do my best to communicate the expectation from here on out, which aligns with my interpretation of our expectations as a public school who [sic] seeks to be inclusive and culturally sensitive to all of our students.

As quoted in the memo, Christmas traditions that would also be barred from Manchester Elementary include the following, among other things:

  • Elf on the Shelf (that's Christmas-related)
  • Sending a Scholastic book that is a Christmas book (that's Christmas-related)
  • Making a Christmas ornament as a gift (this assumes that the family has a Christmas
    tree, which assumes they celebrate Christmas. I challenge the thought of "Well they can
    just hang it somewhere else")
  • Red/Green items (traditional Christmas colors)
  • Reindeer
  • Christmas videos/movies and characters from Christmas movies

There are some practices that principal Sinclair thinks are permissible for classrooms to indulge in. The memo suggests gift giving, Yetis and gender equality are safe and inclusive enough for her school. Under the section of "acceptable practices," it is noted that gingerbread people are OK, as are snowmen, snow women and snow people.

Sinclair signed the memo "The (Unintentional) Grinch who stole Christmas (from Manchester)."

Teachers and parents were not amused, and some reached out to Legal Counsel, a non-profit organization that fights for religious freedoms and Christian values.

Legal Counsel stepped in and threatened litigation. It sent a letter to the school district, arguing that principal Sinclair's anti-Christmas mandate was unconstitutional by showing "hostility toward Christianity":

The principal appears to have conflated her own values and preferences with the law. The First Amendment simply does not require elimination of all Christmas symbols — religious and secular — in a misguided attempt to be "inclusive" by eliminating all traditional elements of a federally — and state-recognized holiday. The effort to comprehensively eliminate Christmas symbols is Orwellian.

Nothing prohibits public schools from teaching objectively about religion, or about holidays with religious significance, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nothing prohibits public school music programs from having a mix of sacred and secular songs relating to the Christmas holiday, as part of a balanced Christmas music program; or classroom assignments from having relevance to Christmas.

The effort to comprehensively eliminate Christmas symbols is Orwellian.

In its letter, Legal Counsel also points out that Sinclair's ban on traditional Christmas symbols violates the Elkhorn Public School district's own administrative guidelines:

  1. Teachers may teach about religious holidays as part of an objective and secular educational program. Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other similar practices is prohibited. The study of holidays should reflect the diverse heritage of the United States.
  2. Religious symbols, such as crosses, creches or menorahs may be used as teaching aids in the classroom provided that the symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and/or religious heritage of the holiday and are temporary in nature. If put on a bulletin board, religious symbols may be viewed as promoting a certain religious perspective. (Christmas trees, Santa Claus and Easter eggs and bunnies are considered to be secular, seasonal symbols and may be displayed as teaching aids provided they do not disrupt the instructional program for students.)
  3. Music, art, literature and drama with religious themes may be included in teaching about holidays, provided that they are presented in a religiously neutral, prudent and objective manner and related to sound, secular educational goals.

In light of the pushback, the school district placed principal Sinclair on leave.

Victor Penney is a Canadian-based freelance writer.


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