Ashland public schools can display a decorated pine tree if it is surrounded by symbols from other religious holidays, but they should not display a Christmas tree alone, in order to remain religiously neutral.

Ashland public schools can display a decorated pine tree if it is surrounded by symbols from other religious holidays, but they should not display a Christmas tree alone, in order to remain religiously neutral, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro told the School Board Monday.

District officials have implemented new holiday guidelines this year, after a controversy erupted at Bellview Elementary School last December over Principal Michelle Zundel's removal of a holiday tree, because a family complained that it was a religious symbol. After dozens of parents and students protested the decision, Zundel replaced the tree, adding other winter decorations and allowing students to decorate the tree with symbols from their own religions.

"Something that was problematic was, we didn't have any written guidelines for teachers and schools to use," Di Chiro told the board.

A committee of elementary school parents, teachers and administrators helped create the district's new guidelines over the past year, she said.

"Certainly these guidelines could be used at anytime that these celebrations could come up, but for us that mainly happens in December," Di Chiro said. "It's actually called the 'December dilemma' that many, many schools face."

The committee studied the rulings of about a dozen court cases regarding school holiday displays before crafting the new guidelines, Di Chiro said.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religion may only be studied when it is 'presented objectively as a part of a secular program of education,'" the guidelines state. "It is constitutionally permissible for teachers to teach about religion, but impermissible for public schools to observe religious holidays or practice religion."

One set of rules covers classroom instruction and another addresses holiday displays in public areas, such as school hallways, cafeterias and libraries.

Teachers should be inclusive, including all relevant holidays in classroom instruction, and should focus instruction around a theme, such as light, to explore winter holidays, the guidelines state. Teachers can also encourage families to explain their religious traditions to the class.

"Certainly teachers and schools need to, and are completely allowed to, teach about religion," Di Chiro said. "Religion is a factor in our country and in the development of our country, and to ignore that would be inappropriate, but we can't have anything that promotes a particular religion. We need to be neutral and we need to be inclusive."

In public areas, displays should "represent the diversity of the season, and should avoid symbols with patently religious meanings," such as the manger scene, menorahs, angels or the Star of David, according to the guidelines. If a tree is displayed, it should be surrounded "with symbols from various religious backgrounds, along with secular symbols," the guidelines state.

Students may sing or perform religious songs or plays in a school assembly as long as the program also includes numbers from different religious practices and secular sources. The performance should avoid emphasizing one religion over another, according to the guidelines.

Students are also allowed to be excused from participation in activities that include religious content.

Although the board was not required to vote on the new guidelines, several board members expressed support for the new regulations.

"I want to commend the committee," said board member Heidi Parker. "I think it's a really reasonable approach."

The district will reassess the policy next year, after receiving feedback from schools, Di Chiro said.

"We want to make sure that this is a joyous time of the year for everyone and make sure that we don't have any more controversies," she said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.