The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of protest — often the first step leading to a lawsuit — to the Petoskey Public Schools here in Michigan over the school board’s decision to rename their “winter holiday break” as “Christmas break” on the school calendar. The Grand Rapids Examiner has the details:
On Aug. 18 during a closed session, the school board voted unanimously to change the wording of the school calendar from “Winter holiday break” to “Christmas break.” That was eight days after the board treasurer, Jack Waldvogel, sent an inflammatory e-mail to district staff and board members. Either make the change voluntarily, Waldvogel said, “or I will make a motion to change it at the NEXT Board meeting, and raise such a stink, and bring out every redneck Christian Conservative north of Clare, to compel the District to do so.” The e-mail also said: “Our children need to know we are a Christian nation and taking all reference to a higher being out of our educational vocabulary is wrong.”…
“Changing the wording to Christmas break so that Petoskey school children know that ‘we are a Christian nation’ violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence,” said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, in a letter to the district.
The change also violates the principle set down in Lemon v. Kurtzman that requires government action to have a secular purpose, Kratz said. “Mr. Waldvogel’s intent and purpose for recommending the change was based wholly on religion. There is no secular purpose for the change when the school district’s top administrators and elected officials clearly indicate to the public that they want children to know of Christianity and of the existence of a higher being.”
Waldvogel now says that his email was meant “tongue-in-cheek” despite the fact that the email ends with the statement, “Don’t assume this is a joke. I’m being as serious as I possibly can here” (see the full text of the FFRF’s letter and the Waldvogel email here). Waldvogel is also the chairman of the Emmet County Republican Party.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a group that has often filed lawsuits that they have little chance of winning, but this is one they could certainly win. Waldvogel’s email will be a big problem for the district should a suit be filed in federal court. As the FFRF’s attorney noted in her letter, the Lemon test requires that government policies have a “clear secular purpose” and evidence of an explicitly religious purpose for passing a policy has led to the overturning of many state and local actions over last 35 years.