Times are a-changing, and American traditions in elementary school may be among the first things to go. The latest: A Brooklyn, New York, elementary school principal named Eujin Jaela Kim is coming under fire for her decision to ban all holiday symbols at PS 169, along with the elimination of the Pledge of Allegiance.
As PTA president Mimi Ferrer explained to The New York Post, school staff members are no longer allowed to say “Christmas” or use any materials with other holiday symbols on them — including Santa, angels and stars that may represent the Star of David. Kim has also banned the Pledge of Allegiance and Thanksgiving celebrations from school classrooms. Kids now celebrate a “harvest festival” in November and a “winter celebration” in December, all for the purpose of respecting diversity in an elementary school that is 95 percent Asian and Hispanic. In a memo sent out from assistant principal José Chaparro last month to introduce the changes, Chaparro reminded staff members that not all kids celebrate the same holidays.
Kim’s inclusive elementary school makeover is getting major attention around the holidays because of the ban on Santa, but many parents are up in arms about another change that affects the school every other day of the year: removing the Pledge of Allegiance.
A school Santa ban may be more controversial during Christmastime, but it’s also easier to understand. For every child who believes in Santa, there may be a Christian family who prefers to make the holiday about Jesus, children from Jewish or atheist families may not celebrate a Christmas that includes Jesus or Santa, and children from Muslim families will normally sit out on Christmas in the classroom since it’s not technically a Muslim holiday. Beyond that, there are countless other religious denominations to consider — like the 8 million practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world who do not celebrate holidays or birthdays.
So for many parents, that religious inclusion around the holidays makes sense. But a ban on the Pledge of Allegiance? Claims that it’s un-American aren’t surprising.
And yet “un-American” is an interesting choice of words for a country that was built on the acceptance of people with many different backgrounds, a concept any kid can benefit from learning at a young age.
Like the Santa ban, this banning of the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school comes back to religious inclusion. The Pledge was written in 1892, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the “under God” portion was added by President Eisenhower as a response to communist influence at the time. Prayer bans in public school started shortly thereafter in the 1960s, but the Pledge remained active in many schools since it was considered optional. Most lawsuits surrounding the Pledge have occurred when schools tried to make it mandatory, and in 2002, we even saw the Pledge declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court because of its “one nation under God” phrasing.
Religious freedom in schools is always a tough topic to tackle, and one elementary school principal seems to be doing it the best way she knows how. Though many parents are in an uproar because traditional religious beliefs and cultural symbols like the Pledge are being challenged, there’s still one motivating factor for these changes that we can’t ignore: Celebrating our differences will always make us stronger as a nation, and teaching our kids to respect diversity is an invaluable way to prepare the next generation.
Here’s a fun closing fact for any parents who are having a hard time wrapping their minds around this Pledge ban that may be coming to a public school near you: The main reason the Pledge isn’t inclusive is because of the “under God” addition that the original writer Frank Bellamy’s daughter disagreed with in the first place. Without this religious add-on, the pledge would have remained as intended — inspirational, inclusive and relevant to all Americans.