Taking ‘Christmas’ out of school program title not a violation, Vale board decides

The Vale School Board disagreed with a parent complaint that school officials violated district policy by leaving the word “Christmas” out of the title of the elementary school performance and not providing for religious songs.  

April Johnson, the mother of a fourth grader at Vale Elementary School, charged in a pair of complaints filed Nov. 13 that Theresa Meiwald, elementary school principal, and Alisha McBride, district superintendent, violated policies related to religion, multiculturalism and recognition of religious beliefs and customs. 

At the heart of Johnson’s complaint was her allegation that music teacher Deborah Wolfe, who teaches at Vale and Willowcreek Elementary Schools, was directed by Meiwald to omit religious songs and nix the word Christmas from the title of the performance in Vale but not Willowcreek McBride investigated the allegations and the school board met in executive, or closed, session on Monday, Dec. 12, to consider the findings. In a subsequent open session, the board turned down the complaints.

Board Chair Jason Chamberlain explained in a letter to Johnson, “It was decided (by the board) to uphold Superintendent McBride’s findings that no district policies were violated, as alleged by the complaint filed against Vale Elementary School Principal Theresa Meiwald. It was also found that no district policies were violated, as alleged by a complaint filed against Superintendent McBride.”

The Vale holiday program on Thursday, Dec. 15, was called the “Holiday Concert,” while in Willowcreek, a similar student performance was dubbed the “Christmas Concert” and was scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 21. 

According to Johnson, the Willowcreek setlist included the holiday song “Joy to the World,” a religious-based piece. However, Meiwald and Wolfe decided against religious holiday music for the performance in Vale. 

“The bottom line for me is that (school officials) are selectively suppressing Christianity at Vale Elementary School in the name of inclusiveness, but they are not at Willow creek,” Johnson said in an interview last week. 

For her part, McBride said the district’s policy permits teaching religion and related concepts. However, district policy forbids educators from openly promoting or inhibiting a particular faith. 

Meiwald did not issue a directive to avoid religious or secular songs when planning the Vale Elementary School performance, McBride said. 

McBride said in her report that Meiwald and Wolfe talked about the diverse student population at Vale Elementary and agreed that the song selections should not knowingly exclude any of the students or families based on their religious beliefs. 

McBride said in her report that the Willowcreek principal did not know of any families or students that would be excluded or discriminated against if a religious-themed song were performed there. However, that would not be the case in Vale, where there is a more diverse student body than in Willowcreek, according to McBride’s report. 

Johnson said the student demographics are nearly identical at the two schools. For example, most students are Christians and celebrate Christmas, but a small percentage do not, she said. 

“They are the same schools in the same school district,” Johnson said. “It should be the same curriculum.” 

McBride pointed out that educators are permitted but not required to teach about religion.  With that, McBride said Meiwald and Wolfe’s decision to nix religious songs from the performance and leave Christmas out of the title would not violate the district’s policy. 

McBride said that to insert a Christian song while not including pieces that reflect the diversity of beliefs of the entire student population in Vale would violate the policy. 

Johnson said she is open to a solely secular concert and she is not telling the district that it must include Christian music. 

“I don’t care if we have a concert where the music teacher picked all Santa songs,” Johnson said. “What I have a problem with is that they took Christian songs off the table specifically. They inhibited Christmas and Christian songs.” 

McBride said that the district policy states that students of all ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, religious and cultural backgrounds should be provided the opportunity to receive a quality education. 

McBride said Meiwald decided to call the performance a “Holiday Concert” in Vale because “holiday” is a universal term that includes multiple cultures and religions. 

“It is evident that Mrs. Meiwald is familiar with the families she and the Vale Elementary School staff serve,” McBride said, “and her efforts to ensure that all students and families are included in the performance, regardless of religious belief, are commended.” 

Johnson said that the efforts of Meiwald and Wolfe to keep within the district’s policies were “heartfelt and sincere” in their efforts not to exclude any students. However, she said she believed the decisions to leave out Christian songs and to remove Christmas from the title of the performance in Vale, but not Willowcreek, violated the district’s policies. 

McBride said that it was acceptable for the Willowcreek performance to incorporate a religious song into its setlist. 

Johnson and her fourth-grader did not attend the Vale program.

“They are overstepping the bounds of educators and they are trying to be parents,” Johnson said. 

The parents decide how a child will participate in school activities and the curriculum, she said. 

“When these educators have decided that they’re picking and choosing curriculum based on, ‘we want to make sure everyone can be involved,’ they’re choosing to suppress, in this case, Christianity,” Johnson said.