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Educating not proselytizing
MUSD walks the line on religious holidays
SCHOOL photo
Manteca High band members head to the staging area of the Manteca Holiday Parade. - photo by Bulletin file photo

The approach of December with a calendar packed with religious holidays — Christianity’s Christmas, Judaism’s Hanukkah, Islam’s Mawlid Un Nabi, Advent Fast, Buddhism’s Rohastum and Zoroastrianism’s Zarathost Diso — means a time to educate for the Manteca Unified School District.

 “Manteca Unified is a culturally diversified school district,” noted District Superintendent Jason Messer.

And while the school district is careful not to run afoul of court rulings regarding the separation of church and state, it uses religious holidays celebrated by various students and their families as a teachable moment for students to learn about the various cultures.

“It is not illegal to discuss or educate about religion but you definitely can’t proselytize,” Messer said.

Messer said that the middle ground that is allowed “gets wonky.” 

Manteca Unified does its best to walk that line.

On the elementary level, each campus handles holiday activities differently. Classroom teachers and administrators work with parents to accommodate requests from parents that may not wish to have their children participate in particular activities.

On the high school level, schools use the word “winter” instead of “Christmas” when advertising concerts. Since choir teachers have the ability to pick their own curriculum such as music rarely are their conflicts. In the rare occasion that is the case, the schools allow a student to opt out if there is a song against their religion to sing.

And when it comes to religious symbols, the district works with the religious communities in Manteca Unified.

An example is the ceremonial sword — the kirpan —that is a sacred article of faith for Sikhs. It serves as a symbolic reminder to the spiritual devotee to use the power of truth to cut through the untruth. It is not meant to be as a weapon per se.

In a nod to concerns in California public schools and elsewhere, Sikh religious leaders agreed that kirpans worn to schools must be worn under clothing, have the blade dulled, and must be soldered or sewn into its sheath so it cannot be removed.

Messer said on the occasion when a Sikh student did take out a kirpan to show it to friends, it was reported to religious leaders who took immediate steps to discipline the offender. He noted it has not happened again.

The superintendent said it is much like crosses that are symbolic of a Christian student’s faith that they are allowed to wear to school.

Messer, along with Deputy Superintendent Clark Burke, have met with Muslim leaders to learn more about the religious customs of students to avoid misunderstandings.

Messer said he was surprised to learn the basic teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Muslins have essentially the same roots.

Manteca Unified recently instituted a policy that gives all district employees two days off for religious holidays. They are able to make up the time by doing work on Saturdays or doing additional hours of work during the week.

The superintendent said a similar policy is being considered for students.

Since it would not be considered an excused absence by the state, additional class time such as Saturday school may be needed to replace the two days of instruction that would be lost due to the religious holidays.

That is a more middle-of-the-road approach than some district including the New York School system. New York City schools are giving all students two Muslin holidays off — the Festival of Sacrifice and Eid al-Fitr — the festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. New York City schools already observe Christian and Jewish holidays.

Messer said the policy being considered is designed to accommodate those of all religious faiths.

“Can you imagine how many students (who are Christian) wouldn’t show up if we scheduled school on Dec. 25?” Messer asked rhetorically.