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Menorah ban prompts lawsuit against California school district

A Jewish parent says the school's refusal to put up an inflatable menorah at its Christmas tree lighting ceremony sends the message that Christians are favored above those who practice other religions.

(CN) — By banning the display of a menorah at an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a California school district is discriminating against non-Christians and violating the First Amendment, a parent claims in a federal lawsuit filed this week.

Michelle Lyons, a Jewish parent of four students, seeks a temporary restraining order to stop Carmel Unified School District officials from barring an inflatable menorah at an annual holiday celebration at an elementary school on Friday, Dec. 10.

“Defendants have endorsed, and continue to endorse, religion by sending the message that Christians are officially favored, and non-Christians disfavored, by school officials,” Lyons claims in her 22-page complaint.

According to Lyons, she has been trying for three years to add a Hanukkah display to the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at her children's school but has been turned down every time. This year, she thought the menorah was finally a go after Carmel River Elementary School principal Jay Marden voiced support for the idea.

But after Lyons sent out flyers telling parents the menorah would be included, she claims the school retaliated against her by effectively canceling the Hanukkah celebration and falsely accusing her of having “altered” official flyers for the event, which is hosted by the PTA.

“The PTA will not be hosting a menorah lighting,” the principal wrote in a schoolwide email cited in the lawsuit. “It is our understanding that our original invitation sent out this past Friday has been altered, without approval, to change the nature of this event. Unfortunately, this altered invitation has been sent to dozens of river school parents with this falsified information.”

Lyons asked the district’s superintendent, Ted Knight, to overrule the menorah exclusion. Instead, he told her “she would simply have to accept that the secular symbols of her children’s holiday and the other non-Christian holidays would be excluded,” according to her lawsuit.

In an email to Lyons’ attorney Tuesday, a school district lawyer noted the event is organized by the PTA, not the school district. The lawyer said Lyons’ request was interpreted as asking for a separate Hanukkah event at the same time and location as the Christmas tree lighting. The district “does not grant facilities requests for multiple uses of school facilities at the same time,” the lawyer said in an email attached to the complaint.

The school district lawyer added Lyons may still apply to reserve school grounds for an after-hours event at a separate time from the already scheduled Christmas tree lighting, at which time she will be free to display the menorah.  

Lyons also complains that after Friday's ceremony, a Christmas tree will continue to be displayed on school grounds over the following week while the menorah will remain excluded.

The Carmel parent cites other instances in which she believes the school has treated the Christian holiday more favorably than Hanukkah. For example, Lyons says one of her children was taught in kindergarten in 2018 that “Santa Claus would visit him and bring him presents” and that “Hanukkah was an Israeli holiday, implying that Christmas was the only American holiday in December.”

She further claims that a Hanukkah song was introduced to kindergartners as an “Israeli song” while Christmas songs had no such introduction, implying that Christmas songs are American songs.

“Ms. Lyons believes that her children should be able to attend public school without unwelcome exposure to government-sponsored religious practices and messages and without harassment for their religious beliefs,” the complaint states. “Indeed, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that public-school students have an unequivocal right to attend school free from official imposition or promotion of religion.”

Lyons accuses the school district of violating the establishment clause, free speech clause and free exercise clause of the First Amendment. She also claims a violation of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and free speech retaliation.

She also names the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent as defendants in the lawsuit.

Lyons is represented by Sebastian Miller, a private attorney based in Carmel.

A hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order to block the menorah ban is scheduled for Thursday at 12:30 p.m. via video conference before U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose.

The Carmel River Elementary School and Carmel Unified School District did not immediately return emails and phone calls requesting comment Wednesday.

Follow @NicholasIovino
Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Religion

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