BRAVE NEW SCHOOLS
'Day of the Dead'
event still alive
District may face lawsuit over planned 4th-grade celebration
Posted: October 28, 2002
public-interest law firm says a lawsuit to stop a "Day of the Dead"
celebration at a California public school "appears imminent" after
school-district officials refused to cancel the event, despite receiving a
"cease and desist" letter from the firm sent on behalf of a concerned
In response to the concern raised by the United
States Justice Foundation, or USJF, the school adjusted its planned
classroom activities and is belatedly seeking permission from parents for
their children's participation. It also is offering them limited opportunity
to view a videotape to be shown to the students as part of the celebration.
USJF maintains the last-minute efforts fail to comply with California
WorldNetDaily reported, fourth-graders at
Elementary in Petaluma, Calif., will be observing the traditional Meso-American
holiday, El Dia de los Muertos, with classroom activities now scheduled to
run tomorrow through Friday.
According to an Oct. 11 letter sent to parents by the public-school
teachers, obtained by WorldNetDaily, the 9-year-olds were slated to be
"putting together an ofrenda with symbolic items" and were to be "bringing
in a picture and write up fond memories about a deceased family member,
friend or pet." While the letter defined "ofrenda" as "remembrance table,"
an accompanying flier defined it as an "altar."
USJF objected to the event on the grounds that the school's sponsorship
amounted to an endorsement of particular religious views in violation of the
First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The foundation argued the references to "altar," "symbolic items,"
"remembrance" and "welcoming death" were "religious themes" that indicated
the event is intended to be a practical application of "spiritual and
denied the event is unconstitutional and maintains the school is merely
following state guidelines for curriculum, which require, according to
Eckhardt, the study of "social, political, cultural and economic life and
interactions among the people of California from pre-Columbian societies to
"As you know, California has a significant Latino population, and this
helps build an understanding between the two major cultural groups in our
community," Eckhardt told WorldNetDaily.
The ancient Aztec El Dia de los Muertos ritual celebrated in Mexico and
in Mexican communities throughout the United States typically involves
honoring the dead by donning masks and dancing on their graves or at altars
built in their honor. The altars are surrounded with flowers, food and
pictures of the deceased. Celebrants light candles and place them next to
the altar. They also eat sugar skulls. The skulls symbolize death and
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed the deceased
come back to visit during the ritual. As the flier sent to Petaluma parents
describes, El Dia de los Muertos is a "ritual event in which the spirits of
dead loved ones are invited to visit the living as honored guests."
El Dia de los Muertos was eventually moved to coincide with the Christian
holiday "All Saints' Day," which is celebrated on Nov. 1.
In response to USJF's "cease and desist" letter, school attorney Robert
Henry offered assurances that "students will be learning about the holiday,
not observing it or celebrating it."
Specifically, according to Henry:
Henry further states in his letter that "no student will be forced to
participate in any activity that parents feel may be in conflict with the
personal beliefs of the family" and "alternate activities will be provided."
The assurances don't assuage one concerned parent who still intends to
keep her daughter out of class during the four-day event.
"What's changed? They're still going to talk about dead relatives," she
told WND. "They're semantically getting around practicing the ritual by
calling the table where the photographs and everything will be put a
'remembrance table' rather than 'altar' and calling them 'symbolic items'
instead of 'offerings.'"
In fact, a letter sent home with students on Friday updating parents on
the Day of the Dead activities states students will be "invited, but not
required, to bring in a photo or picture of a loved one who has died." The
letter further describes that children will be learning about "the cultural
use of symbolic artifacts and the various craft activities that the Mexicans
take part in as they honor death as a part of the cycle of life." The
"symbolic artifacts" and "craft activities" presumably relate to the "masks,
jumping 'mariachi style' skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls" referenced
in Henry's letter.
A call to Eckhardt for more specifics was not returned.
USJF litigation counsel Richard Ackerman told WND, "A judge would buy
into this semantical work-around. But [our action] puts them on notice.
They're in a tough 'catch-22.' ... We'll see how much they care about the
Constitution when Christmas gets here," he added.
In his e-mailed response to Henry, Ackerman wrote: "We do have serious
reservations about your decision to continue presenting the children with
actual objects that DO have religious significance to adherents of the
religions and cultures that celebrate the Day of the Dead (skulls,
marigolds, etc.). To suggest that these items do not have religious
significance to Latino-Americans is an insult to their cultural values."
"The district appears to evade the real issue here," continued Ackerman,
"I believe that we would have to agree as to the inseparable nature of
religion and culture. Because of this fact, we will be very closely
monitoring the district as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and other events
come up. Naturally, we expect that you ... will give the children equal
access to the cultural symbols of these celebrations as well (Nativity
scenes, crosses, and other such cultural symbols). ... The district cannot
engage in content-based discrimination or cultural preference."
More concerning than the equal-access issue to USJF and the parent WND
spoke to, however, is the planned use of the "educational video," which,
according to a handful of parents who have viewed it, contains sexually
explicit and obscene language and is overall "inappropriate" for children.
"If the parents saw this video, all hell would break loose," one parent
The problem is parents will have limited opportunity to view the excerpts
teachers plan to show the classroom. Friday's letter offers two viewing
periods for today at 3:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.
California education code requires parental permission for classroom
activities or discussion pertaining to family values, morality and religious
themes. The letter sent home with the 9-year-olds Friday also provides for
parents to indicate their permission with a signature.
But according to Ackerman, both the last-minute and limited review
period, as well as the reliance on the children to deliver the permission
slips home violates California education code.
"A lawsuit appears imminent," Ackerman told WND.
One mother scoffs at the notion of alternate activities being offered to
parents who object to the Day of the Dead event: "Of course they can't
require the kids to do any of these activities, but parents are too afraid
of being called freaks if they pull their children out," she said.
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Diana Lynne is a news editor for WorldNetDaily.com.
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