Candy Cane Display Prompts Complaint from Atheist

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John Ferrannini, Editor in Chief

Candy canes, those sweet and seemingly benign holiday candies, have left a sour taste with senior Hunter Hill. At least when cardboard representations of the treats are displayed in a public school classroom.

Last week Hill told his English teacher Christine Harknett that he objected to her display of large candy cane stickers because he sees them as religious symbols that offend his belief system.

“Candy canes are based on the blood of Christ,” said Hill, who said he is an atheist.

“She doesn’t believe that candy canes represent Christ but I have research to prove that they do.”

Harknett declined to be interviewed, but her candy canes remain as visible as her bright holiday sweaters.

And Hill maintains the display violates the Constitution and makes it harder for him to learn.

“San Juan claims to offer a safe nondenominational learning environment and it took away my focus,” he said.

“I’m sure kids who were Christians would be mildly uncomfortable if there were Stars of David all over the room.”

Hill has not brought his concerns to the administration.

“I just wanted Mrs. Harknet to know about my concerns,” he said.

While Harknett may not share Hill’s concerns, his complaint raises issues about what kind of holiday displays can be put up in a public school.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1989 case of Allegheny County vs. American Civil Liberties Union that a nativity scene on public property for a solely religious purpose was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or abridging the free exercise thereof.”

The Court ruled that the particular nativity scene was unconstitutional because it had the “principal or primary effect” of advancing religion.

In “A Guide for Jewish Parents,” the Anti-Defamation League writes, “it is important to note that while Christmas trees, Santas, wreaths, wrapped gifts, and reindeer are commonly used as Christmas decorations or symbols, the courts have decided that they are secular symbols of the season.”

The guide goes on to say that “their inordinate usage is inappropriate” and suggests alternatives such snowflakes and gingerbread houses.

Vice Principal Chuck Whitaker said that there is no San Juan or Rio policy concerning Christmas decorations that are not overtly religious, such as candy canes.

“The district has sent information out in previous years to be respectful of those who do not share your beliefs,” Whitaker said.

“Lights and candy canes are probably fine. Some schools still have trees up. We just don’t have a hard fast policy.”

Whitaker said that the administration would deal with a situation like Hill’s on a case by case basis.

“We might have to talk to the individual teacher or staff involved,” he said.

“We’d certainly observe the display the student was distressing over.”

Even displays such as nativity scenes and angels would be okay in certain balanced and educational circumstances.

“You can have religious holiday celebrations if it’s part of a curriculum,” Whitaker said.

“If you’re studying holiday decorations as part of a class and you have nativity scenes or Stars of David, that’s okay. A lot of schools make it part of the curriculum.”

Science teacher A.J. Paulus, who has decorated his room for Christmas, said he is interested in promoting school spirit and not a particular religious belief.

“Teachers should be able to demonstrate spirit,” he said.

“At the same time, it could offend others.”

“A student recently asked if they could bring in a menorah and I said yes. If I did offend a specific student I’d encourage them to donate or lend me something from their culture. I’ll support all cultures. I suppose that wouldn’t satisfy those who want no decorations. Ultimately, I’ll do what the principal or the district tells me to do.”

As for Hill’s claim that candy canes represent the blood of Christ and hold other Christian symbolism, snopes.com, the internet urban legends resource, isn’t buying it.

“This is charming folklore at best, and though there’s nothing wrong with finding (and celebrating) symbolism where there wasn’t any before, this story of the candy cane’s origins, is like Santa Claus, a myth and not a ‘true story.’”

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