AT a glance, it seems laughable. Grown men and women here in
Franklin, N.H., are locked in a fist-waving debate over a fat guy
in a red suit who doesn't really exist.
Santa Claus, meet Murphy Brown.
Yet for the 8,000 residents of Franklin, and in cities and towns
across America, the question of how public schools observe
religious holidays is anything but frivolous.
Critics say Christmas tidings in the classroom alienate the
growing number of American children, 15 percent by some estimates,
who do not celebrate the holiday. Supporters say Santa is a secular
symbol unjustly targeted by the pundits of political correctness.
"It seems like a minor issue, but it's symbolic of a great many
frustrations people have with the schools," says Charles Haynes of
the Freedom Forum First-Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University,
in Nashville, Tenn. "What people are really saying is: 'Whose
schools are these?' and 'What kind of a nation do we want to be?"'
Since the United States Supreme Court outlawed school-sponsored
prayer in 1962, schools have dealt with Christmas in a variety of
ways. Many have jettisoned everything, including Santa, trees, and
carols with Christian references like "O Come All Ye Faithful."
Some have kept them, but added Kwaanza and Hanukkah to the holiday
menu. Still others have refused to change, risking lawsuits from
civil liberties groups.
"Some parents want to bring in Christmas trees, and others don't
want any mention of the word 'Christmas' at all," Mr. Haynes says.
"School officials get caught in the middle."
The current imbroglio in Franklin began early this month when
Pam Henderson, principal of Bessie Rowell Elementary, vetoed an
appearance by Santa Claus at the school's traditional holiday
The move sparked a series of shoulder-bumping school committee
meetings in which the majority of attendees came to Santa's defense.
"I see Santa Claus not as a thing of religion but as a
tradition," Franklin mayor Tom Matzke said, sporting a
red-and-white Santa cap at the gathering. "You cannot change a
Although Ms. Henderson has refused to comment, Franklin school
superintendent Edgar Melanson came to her defense: "The point is
not to do away with Santa Claus," he explains, "it's about creating
an even balance for the sake of diversity."
Since at least 95 percent of Franklin's schoolchildren celebrate
Christmas at home, Melanson says teachers have a responsibility to
educate them about different cultures.
"What's happening here is that educators are realizing that this
is no longer a white, Christian, Puritan New England; that we now
have a significant population that does not share that heritage,"
says Clare Ebel, director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties
Union. Because the public schools are an arm of government, she
says, "they ought not to reflect any religious tradition. …