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School does not have to display blow-up menorah, judge rules

A federal judge said that a woman could not force a school district to display a menorah at a holiday tree-lighting ceremony, saying it has strictly religious connotations.

(CN) — A federal judge was unconvinced Friday by the religious discrimination claims filed by a California woman who says Carmel Unified School District’s refusal to allow her to display a menorah at a community holiday ceremony is unlawful.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman said that Michelle Lyons, a parent of four schoolchildren in the district, failed to prove she was unlikely to succeed in showing the legal justification necessary to require Carmel River School on the Central Coast of California to allow the display of a symbol sacred to the Jewish religion during a community ceremony.

The judge said forcing the district to display the symbol would be a proactive act, which requires a higher legal bar than simply preventing an entity from doing something. 

“The currently planned event is a tree lighting, with community participation limited to decorating the tree,” Labson Freeman wrote in the 11-page order issued Friday. “An order requiring defendants to modify the event to allow Ms. Lyons to participate in a different way, by displaying a 6-foot inflatable menorah, would be a mandatory injunction.”

Labson Freeman said Lyons’ First Amendment argument was unlikely to succeed because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not a religious symbol. 

“Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas,” Labson Freeman wrote in the order. 

Lyons argued that the Carmel Unified School District’s refusal to display the inflatable menorah during a traditional Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the school meant officials were favoring the Christian religion over Judaism.

Freeman’s denial of the order meant the inflatable menorah will not be displayed at the annual holiday celebration which was slated to be held Friday night. 

“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 claimed 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.

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