Bellview Elementary School Principal Michelle Zundel has removed a holiday giving tree at the school after a family complained that the tree was a religious symbol.
The move has upset dozens of parents who say the tree was not a religious symbol, but a way to celebrate the holiday season and help those in need.
After removing the tree, Zundel created new guidelines this week for school-sponsored holiday displays — effectively banning holiday trees, Santa Claus figures and Dreidels, which are "legally categorized as secular," she said. She plans to hold a meeting to discuss the guidelines Tuesday from 7:15 to 8 p.m. in Bellview's conference room.
When Bellview students returned from Thanksgiving break Monday, two snowmen figures sat where the 5-foot-tall giving tree had been in the school's lobby. The decorations from the artificial tree — lights and tags requesting gifts for needy children — had been transferred to the snowmen.
Zundel said Thursday that she removed the giving tree because it offended a few students who do not celebrate Christmas. Three or four families have told Zundel they found the display offensive, she said.
"These children felt somehow less welcome at their own school, having that symbol so prominently displayed," she said.
Zundel acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that holiday trees are not religious symbols and that they can legally be displayed in schools. However, she said she felt that the Bellview tree symbolized Christmas, and should be taken down in the interest of maintaining religious neutrality at the school.
"Because we have compulsory attendance in our schools, we need to be more sensitive than the law requires," Zundel said. "The displays promoted by a public school should be religiously neutral."
The organizers of the second annual giving tree program said they were not promoting religion or Christmas with the tree — they were trying to help needy students and spread holiday cheer.
"There's nothing religious about it," said Allison Hamik, a Bellview parent who helped organize the giving tree program. "We didn't put religious symbols on it."
Hamik said she has spoken with more than 100 Bellview parents who are upset by the decision to remove the tree.
"Why wouldn't a winter tree that's decorated with giving tags be allowed?" she asked. "Why is that offensive?"
Holiday trees, which are displayed in other public places in the city, such as at the Ashland Public Library and on the plaza, don't necessarily reflect Christianity, Hamik said.
"If you ask any Christmas-celebrating person, the tree isn't what denotes Christ or Christmas — it's part of a decoration," she said.
Zundel, who assumed her position at Bellview this year after the previous principal was laid off in a round of budget cuts, said she initially allowed the display to go up because she wanted to maintain tradition.
But after hearing from the family who was offended by the display, she had a change of heart and decided to take it down. The family who complained did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
The district does not have a policy regarding holiday displays, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said Thursday.
"We really do need to do that," she said. "It is very difficult for principals right now because it's on a case-by-case basis that they have to make these decisions."
Di Chiro plans to work with school administrators this spring to develop a district-wide policy on holiday décor, she said.
Although the giving tree was not specifically called a Christmas tree, Zundel felt that it was a religious symbol.
"An evergreen tree decorated with lights and ornaments, I think in our culture is the definition of a Christmas tree," she said. "When your family does not have a tree in the house, it becomes a religious symbol."
Under Zundel's new guidelines, wreaths, candles, candy canes, snowflakes and snowmen — such as those that replaced the giving tree — are designated as religiously neutral and are acceptable for holiday displays.
In classrooms, teachers can use religious symbols to accompany lessons but cannot ask students to participate in a religious activity or display religious symbols permanently, Zundel said.
Di Chiro said that although both sides of the debate over the tree have made good points that will be considered when district officials create a new policy, she was disappointed that the giving project had become divisive at the school.
"I'm sorry that something that started out as a wonderful thing at Bellview, where families were trying to reach out to other families in need, had to become controversial," she said. "This is not our intent at this time of year."
Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.