Nativity Scene in a Public School? December 9, 2008

Nativity Scene in a Public School?

***Update***: The author has removed her posting and its follow-up. No word on the Nativity scene, though.

I understand public high school classrooms putting up holiday decorations this time of year — lights, ornaments, even small trees.

But a Nativity scene?

That’s what Crystal, a Christian teacher from Georgia, seems to have done

This week, my 3rd period class decorated my room for Christmas.

In a public school.

With a tree, ornaments, lights and NATIVITY SCENE!

And ya know what? We had a blast! We listened to Christmas music, drank hot chocolate, hung lights, wrapped presents and really enjoyed each other as a class. That is important!

She even has justification for putting it up:

I teach Spanish. 97% of Spanish speakers are Catholic. Catholics celebrate Christmas and the focal point of their holiday decor is the nativity scene. I’m teaching culture 🙂

93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists. So is it ok to tell students in Biology class that God most likely doesn’t exist?

She adds that non-Christians in her class didn’t complain about it — not the Hindu, not the atheist, not the Muslim.

So it must be ok.

She’s wrong.

You can’t expect kids to speak up in situations like that. When it does happen, it’s rare. Very few students are able or willing to take a stand against the person who gives them a grade.

I don’t know where she teaches and I don’t know whether she would take the scene down if a student did complain.

But she’s making a mistake. She ought to know better.

I just hope there is a brave student willing to speak out against it.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kate

    Hey guess what lady…maybe you should spend a little less time drinking hot chocolate and setting up nativity scenes, and a little more time conjugating verbs.

    That justification is the most lame…thing…EVER.

  • eth

    Dear Hemant: Perhaps it’s the time of year, but you’ve been getting more and more strident over the past few weeks, and less and less… well, friendly!

    Teaching a language does involve teaching the culture, not just conjugating verbs (what century is your pedagogy from, Angry Kate?!) – and from what little I know of Spanish culture, it would be odd to have an Xmas-themed room without a nativity scene in it.

    I think perhaps a useful addition might be to look at modern Spain, too, and look at variety of Xmas traditions – while there’s less variety in religious terms than most other Western countries (except perhaps Italy!), my guess is that there’s still a lot more variety than modern US Hispanic society, and it could be a useful part of the class. So how do Spanish atheists deal with the festive season? I don’t know: I’m guessing that like many other atheists they’ll still have a tree or equivalent in their house!

  • Luther Weeks

    Actually it should be OK to teach that gods do not exist in Science Class.

    Not because 97% of scientists are atheists, but because its scientifically accurate. 97% of scientists are atheist because gods do not exist.

    I suppose its fine to teach that people believe that gods exist in religion class as well, not because of the students in the class but because it is religion class.

    Also its one thing to teach religion as culture and another to teach it as fact – my bet is its really being taught as fact in this case, while culture is being used as the justification. (Perhaps its not being taught at all, but treated as an assumed fact which is reinforcing it as fact)

  • Tyson

    Should you be able to tell students in biology that god probably doesn’t exist? If the National Academy of Sciences said something to that point, it would be hard to argue against it. Of course they don’t, but I don’t think telling kids in science class that physics is the way of explaining the way the world works and that everything is physics (biology is just physics of living things, chemistry is physics of atoms)is proselytizing.

    But, I did want to bring up something else. In math, on March 14, people generally hold a “pi day.” And on… yikes, what’s Avagadro’s number again? 6.022 * 10^23? On some day… is it October 23? Or June… (hey, don’t give me any scorn. me == physicist… to make up for it I know what 1/137 represents…)

    Anyway… what’s wrong with a Darwin season during December? I’m sure something happened in December to warrant it.

  • Aj

    Teaching language does involve teaching culture, but none of the things mentioned can be justified as aiding in the teaching of Spanish to Americans. Most of them are Christians, all of them already know about Christmas traditions and Jesus. That a nativity scene is usually present in Catholic homes does not help people learn Spanish.

    Since this teacher is a faithhead, I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say that the “Christmas music” was religious in nature. Considering what horrendous things they do, music and a nativity scene is small and not particularly harmful, but it is also indefensible.

    I’m hoping that the smiley means that the 97% comment is a joke because otherwise this person is mentally deficient.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think we need to take up a collection and buy a bunch of Flying Spaghetti Monster Nativity scenes for situations like this.

  • I just hope there is a brave student willing to speak out against it.

    That should not be required. We are talking about 9 year olds. Are we expecting children to be in charge of protecting the laws of our country? It should not matter if a child complains or not.

  • Jeebus

    Why is 97% the sudden random statistic of choice:

    From PZ:

    “Let’s see how your school handles an email blitz from Christians (which I will point out to you sir, comprises of approximately 97% of the population of the United States)”

  • penn

    writerdd, we are talking about high schoolers. It’s a 3rd period class of high schoolers.

    eth, I don’t see anything angry in Hemant’s post. Nativity scenes do not belong in public schools. Just because they are fun to setup does not make it appropriate. Nativity scenes do not teach student’s anything about Spanish culture except that they often use nativity scenes to decorate at Christmas. Teaching about their predominantly Catholic culture is fine, but the nativity scene in the classroom doesn’t add anything to that lesson.

  • ubi dubius

    Do public classrooms in Spain have Nativity Scenes? As a Spanish teacher with an obsession with Nativity Scenes and Hispanic culture, I’m sure Crystal knows the answer to that question. If she doesn’t, she’s being very intellectually lazy.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    97% percent of Spanish speakers are Catholic? That’s news to me. Most Spanish-speaking Latin American countries have significant protestant populations (Guatemala has the largest protestant population, at about 40%). Argentina has significant Jewish and Muslim populations (similar in percentage to the United States). Andean and Amazonian countries like Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile have significant numbers of practitioners of indigenous religions. Caribbean countries have significant populations of practitioners of voodoo, Santería, and other African syncretic traditions. And so on and so forth. Not to mention that, looking through this site,, it appears that most Latin American countries have 4-7% of people self-reporting as atheist or agnostic, except Cuba, which comes in at over 50% atheist, and Uruguay, which comes in at 16% atheist or agnostic.

    For Spain, Wikipedia says 76% self-identified as Catholic, and 19% self-identify as non-religious.

    What is my point? There is a tremendous amount of religious diversity in the Spanish speaking world. So…basically, this teacher needs to get her facts right, and if she is truly interested in teaching her Spanish students about religion in Spain and Latin America, she’ll teach about the breadth and diversity of religious traditions and not just throw up a nativity scene for Christmas. Maybe she is doing that, I don’t know. I have my doubts.

  • writerdd, we are talking about high schoolers. It’s a 3rd period class of high schoolers.

    Whoops, I misread that!

    Still, it should not be depending upon students, who most likely have been trained for their entire lives to obey their teachers, to protest in school. They are not adults. They are not the responsible parties by any stretch of the imagination. I would hope, at least, they would have the impetus to complain to their parents.

    But I wouldn’t have at that age. I just sucked up whatever bothered me and swallowed it. I wouldn’t have spoken to anyone, except perhaps some of my friends. We would not have gone to any adults — not our parents or our teachers.

    Slightly off topic, but I think JK Rowling got it exactly right in Harry Potter. The kids rarely go to adults for help — even when, as an adult reader, I think they should be doing just that. They try to work things out themselves. Obviously in fiction this is a tool to empower the young protagonists but I think it is a pretty realistic reflection of how most kids just won’t / don’t go to adults with their problems.

    For the most part, kids really have no power in the adult world.

  • Arnaud

    What annoys me is the fact that they fully admit to have a Christian agenda behind it yet make up other excuses for it. “Oh, accept cultural diversity for pete’s sake!” Cultural diversity? You want to teach a child that some people in the world are Buddhist, Muslim or Hindus, I’m fine with that. You start making them practice their activities, that crosses the line.

    The thing is, this teacher really believes in this stuff and is allowing those beliefs to intrude upon (what she proudly proclaims to be..) a PUBLIC school. It’s just blatantly obvious that when she says she “had [her] disclaimer ready” it means she already had an excuse planned.

    It disgusts me to see this happening.

  • Joanna

    I think a well rounded discussion of the different ways cultures around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus is fine…but nativity scenes worry me. And “celebrating Christmas” in a public school worries me even more.

    I’m okay with holiday celebrations in public schools…the hot chocolate part, the tree part, the ornament part, maybe gift exchanges or craft projects…but having such a blatant symbol of Christian faith in a public school opens up all sorts of problems.

    Public schools (even schools with a majority of Christian kids) have no business promoting Christianity. This is right up there with prayer in school and with teaching creationism on equal footing with evolutionary biology. It comes across as advocating Christianity. Public schools are secular institutions and no amount of “faith based initiative” should be accepted/allowed. Keep Christ out of Public Schools.

    This situation creates a divisive social environment where a minority of kids may feel uncomfortable in the very place where community is supposed to be built–who can withstand such powerful peer pressure to “fit in” and conform. And the teachers are supporting the process. This is wrong.

    My kids are being raised without religious influence from ME, but religious influence happens outside the home so I’ve tried to help them handle situations of bullying and peer pressure…which some of this kind of Christian missionary work ends up being reduced to! Pure and simple: Stigmatizing and scapegoating and ostracizing.

  • Adrian

    I teach Spanish. 97% of Spanish speakers are Catholic. Catholics celebrate Christmas and the focal point of their holiday decor is the nativity scene.

    Oh, well as long as you’re only neglecting a minority of your students that’s okay then.

    Can’t wait to see a KKK-day (don’t worry, 97% of my class is white and racial identity is very important to them).

  • I think it’s one thing if the Nativity scene were part of a lesson, either wholly or partially in Spanish; I learned about santons in my French class, and I think the teacher even left some in the classroom, but it was within the context of French culture. Same thing on the songs… in Spanish. But she makes it sound like they were taking a break from Spanish and focusing on the “holiday spirit.” Which is entirely different.

  • Cereal Man

    Can’t we move on to something else? There are many people who set up nativity scenes at this time of year who do not worship Jesus as literal God. It is simply a long standing Christmas tradition, regardless of how the teacher herself feels about it.

  • Polly

    97% Catholic, eh?

    Well then why wait til Xmas? Why not adorn the classroom with large crucifixes year-round? Maybe she should bring in a priest to perform communion, too.

    I’d be really curious to see what she does on Dia De Los Muertos. After all, 97% of American Spanish speakers are of Mexican heritage (as long as we’re pulling random statistics out of our asses).

  • The primary school my kids go to had their Christmas fund raiser last week. One class was decked out as a scene from the Wizard of Oz (last year it was Narnia). Another had a Santa’s Grotto. Another did a visit to St. Lucia (the banana industry and life in the former British colony). The upper year performed scenes from Dickens (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and a street scene). They’ve even performed the traditional nativity on stage. It was very entertaining. Herod was larger than life, completely over the top.

    There’s no shortage of ways to educate children and get them to be creative. I’d hate to force people to reject one way of educating or force them to stick to one method. The nativity is just another story like the tale of the first Yule Log in Norse mythology. The idea of a god born from a virgin is one taken from earlier religions. The evil child killer king is common in folklore as are travelling wise men or disguised kings. It’s just fiction.

    I don’t think that displaying a nativity and having traditional Christmas ornaments is a problem. I have no issue with a teacher using tools and ideas to discuss Christmas, Ramadan, the Festival of Lights or any other religious or cultural festival as long as it is in a religious education or cross curriculum class. In fact I would hope that these would be taught in addition to the Christian myths.

    Teaching religion as fact is an issue or promoting one religion is a problem. The excuse\disclaimer is a problem. The flouting of public school policy is a problem. The fact that senior staff didn’t stop it or quietly advise her that it wouldn’t be appropriate is a problem.

    She is a teacher to teach, not to pass on her religious values and opinions to her pupils. If she isn’t doing that then it isn’t a problem.

  • JSug

    Yeah, I have to agree with those who are saying it really depends on how it was presented. Teaching Hispanic Catholic traditions as part of a culture section in a language class is not out of line. Spanish culture is undeniably heavily influenced by Catholic traditions. We went over this stuff when I took high school Spanish, though I don’t think we ever went so far as to erect a nativity scene in class. Is that crossing a line? I’m not sure. As long as she isn’t teaching it as fact or trying to promote the religion, though, I don’t see a huge problem.

    That said, reading some of her other blog entries, I might question her overall motive, and scrutinize how she actually presented the material.

  • Marie

    Her name is Crystal Corn (parents must have been sadists)

    I wonder if her principal is interested in her blogging?

    Maybe we should just let him know.

  • Becky

    Cereal Man – you might want to read her whole blog. She is a devout christian who ministers to students on sunday, and considers saturday her sabbath day. Why can’t we get rid of all these “children of god’ in public schools, and get some real teachers in. She should apply to work at a private, religious school; not a public one.

  • She is a devout christian who ministers to students on sunday, and considers saturday her sabbath day.

    That’s fine as long as she is not “ministering to students” in the classroom. There’s no law against pious Christians getting jobs in public schools.

  • Becky

    writerdd – you’re absolutely right! But, when she brings her faith into the classroom, as she has done; there is a law against that. To me, that is ministering in the classroom. I wonder how she’d feel if another teacher had a statue of Buddha in thier classroom, like her statue of Jesus.

  • The “teaching culture” justification is okay, maybe. What is not good justification is the following:

    Neither the atheist, the muslim, nor last year’s hindu kid took issue with the tree or the tiny nativity scene.

    Just because they don’t complain doesn’t tell you anything. They may not care an ounce, or perhaps they are simply suffering in silence, unwilling to admit even to themselves. Most people try to be nice; they don’t want to take anything away from what is clearly the majority. But it makes people feel left out.

  • In a more ridiculously melodramatic universe, this is how the scene might play out:

    Teacher: “Oh, what a merry Christmas it will be this year! I hope you’ve all enjoyed the treats and decorations! …Oh!” She looks at her nativity scene worriedly, stealing a glance at one of the students. Eventually, she turns towards the student. “You, er, don’t mind that we have a nativity scene, do you?” All the other students look at him. “It doesn’t go against your atheist religion, does it? Because I’m very sensitive to your fai- *ahem* lack of faith.”

    Atheist student: “Um… no…” He looks towards the rest of the class. He looks kind of pale and sad, but no more than usual. “I’m fine.”

    Teacher: “WONDERFUL! We’re having a blast, aren’t we, class?”

  • Becky

    Apparently she did this last year, sans nativity scene, but with the same silly disclaimer.

  • Richard Wade

    I don’t think the “way it is presented in class” makes any difference. The nativity scenes in government buildings are just there, they’re not being “presented as fact vs. presented as culture.” If you think it is inappropriate for nativity scenes in government buildings then it’s also inappropriate in a public school Spanish class. The implied endorsement is obvious.

    The fact that the teacher even offers an attempt at a justification reveals that she knows it is wrong as far as the Constitution and the law, and that she knows there is the possibility that someone will object or more likely be silently offended. She remains comfy in her position of majority regardless of the fact that she knows in the back of her mind that it is unethical.

    Cereal Man, no, we can’t “move on.” This happens every year when religious imposition into public institutions “moves on,” trampling the Constitution. The more people complain about it each year, the closer we come to having it stop. Invoking “tradition” is a transparent rationalization for imposing the tyranny of the majority and sticking to obsolete attitudes. It’s Bill O’Reilly’s favorite defense of bigotry, greed, hate and ignorance. Those are long standing traditions, too.

    eth, the “Friendly” in Friendly Atheist does not mean “making nice.” It does not mean biting our tongues when we see something is wrong, unjust, hypocritical or outrageous. The friendly atheists here will speak out stridently any time of year against those things with our best attempts at clear, rational arguments. “Friendly” simply means we try to avoid peppering those arguments with terms like “idiot,” “asshole,” or “douchebag.” Those just weaken the effect of our arguments and reduce our credibility.

  • Richard Wade

    Crystal is bravely facing people’s remarks, which are running 97% 😉 against the nativity scene. She started a new post about all the responses, where I placed the following comment, in typical Friendly Atheist style:

    It is clear that you have a good heart and clear that you are an excellent teacher, putting a great deal of energy and love into your profession. None of that is taken away by the various remarks about the inappropriateness of the nativity scene in your classroom.

    In your eagerness to have a fun time for all this season, it is important for you to not lose sight of your professional ethics. As a teacher you are in a position of trusted power. You have influence over your students for good or ill. Your remarks in a post last year to your colleagues to not go overboard with their religious expressions in class and get themselves fired shows that you understand it is against your professional ethics to do so. You made an agreement with your employer to uphold the letter and the spirit of the law and the rules of the school. Regardless of your assurance that it’s all in fun, that it’s about culture, that you are being inclusive by mentioning Kwanza, and airily saying that no one is hurt does not release you from the duty to keep your word.

    The laws prohibiting government agencies from endorsing religion are there for a very good reason. The founding fathers remembered vividly the terrible consequences of state-sanctioned religions in Europe, and they wanted to protect their new democracy from the same fate. If ever Christianity is established as the state religion in the U.S., it will be the Christians who will be the first to realize that it was a mistake. They will no longer be able to choose their unique expressions of their faith; they will be compelled by government to conform to state standards. When did the government ever handle something important to your complete approval?

    I’m not saying that you want such a thing, but our nation continues to creep toward it, and little breaks in the laws and rules in little places around the country are how it is happening. Non-believers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with believers to protect our freedom of worship and our freedom to not worship. We all benefit, and we all should help each other correct ourselves when we, in our well-meaning enthusiasm, step over the line.

    Crystal, I sincerely wish you a very happy Christmas season, and a continuing successful career in teaching.
    Most truly yours,
    Richard Wade

  • Caroline

    I don’t usually comment, but I can relate to this story.

    I’m in high school right now, a Junior. I’m taking French (it’s my third year) and there’s a very similar situation.

    We have a “Christmas” party in class before break. She puts out a nativity scene (although in her defense, they’re special figurines she bought in France). We (everybody is required in that “Come on, you have to do it too!” student peer pressure way) sing Christmas carols in French, the obviously Christian ones. Sometimes we even watch a Christmas related movie.

    I couldn’t even imagine complaining. Yeah, I am bothered by it. What atheist would like to sing “Praise Baby Jesus” whether it’s in French or not? But I can’t complain. For one, I’d the the only person saying something. I’d hate to be the scrooge who doesn’t celebrate Christmas and takes away from the other people who do enjoy it.

    I live in a town with the majority being Christian. I’ve learned, especially in school, that I’m the only one of my kind around here and it’s easier to just be quiet about it. =/

  • Chris Morse

    And she just deleted her blog entries.

    Put down the pitchforks and torches.

  • Richard Wade

    Looks like Crystal has closed that post and the subsequent one for responses. I can’t say I blame her. Being swarmed by strangers disapproving of her action, which she thought was harmless and positive, must be very upsetting. I hope the lesson she takes away from this is to not do it rather than just to not publicize it.

  • She’s removed the entry now. I don’t see this as a win though. A win would be her see and admitting that it is wrong to try to impose her religious views on her charges (which I think she accepts anyway) and including religious iconography is a step in that direction.

    I’d rather she defend herself and argue that she hadn’t crossed that line than just delete the entry. Now I don’t know if she is embarrassed, contrite or frightened by the attention. Rather than educating her about the fine line she is walking she may simply entrench her view and surreptitiously promote her faith in an inappropriate forum.

    I don’t consider Crystal to be a bad person in this. She is sharing a view that has clearly worked in a positive way for her. She may well be genuinely unaware of how her actions place her job and professionalism in a tricky situation and how it can easily be seen as an abuse of power. Threats to notify her employer don’t help her, her students or anyone who is simply an interested observer.

    It is surely better to simply point out her error and the reasons that it is inappropriate to use icons of a particular faith in public schools to promote a faith than to threaten her. Her intentions are not in doubt, she clearly means well. She is simply applying the wrong emphasis to her teaching. A quiet, corrective action should stop it getting worse and ensure that it does not happen again.

  • Linda

    Can we take a step back and look again?

    You are right. You make valid points. I get that.

    But proving that you’re right and bullying someone into silence does not change a perspective. It only promotes anger and defensiveness… and it perpetuates the misconception toward the atheists. I doubt that Crystal is thinking anything “friendly” about you tonight.

    Posting a URL to report her to her superiors? C’mon! Isn’t that a bit over the top? Isn’t that the same numbers game that Bill O’Reilly plays? The “We’ll-teach-you-so-you-won’t-misbehave-again” game?

    Win? Is the objective here to win or to make them think? From my experience, anger and/or pain do not lead people toward rational thinking.

    This is just my perspective…

  • Maria

    Do public classrooms in Spain have Nativity Scenes? As a Spanish teacher with an obsession with Nativity Scenes and Hispanic culture, I’m sure Crystal knows the answer to that question. If she doesn’t, she’s being very intellectually lazy.

    Yes, actually they do-I just spent a month in Spain. The religious schools there are public yet lax at best as far as religion goes. Yet somehow Europe is much less uptight about things like this in general. I miss it and worry about it being threatened by the resurgence of fundamentalism.

  • If they had listened to or sung music from Spanish-speaking countries or even done a mini posadas, I think it would have been great. I remember that a multicultural club set up a Day of the Dead altar at school and I even brought in a photo of my late great-grandmother. It was very well done and genuinely a part of the culture.
    Caroline, I think French carols in French class are ok. Religion and religious holidays are part of culture. Now, if your math teacher was doing it, we’d have a different situation.

  • We had a Day of the Dead celebration in my high-school Spanish class. We even made sugar skulls. Nativity scene, I don’t know. I feel like, while it is a part of the culture, she should have played it safe in terms of separation of Church and State and kept the Nativity out of the classroom.

  • Richard Wade

    Crystal contacted me and she was very gracious. She said she is seriously considering the points expressed and said she agrees with much of it.

    I think that in a case like this, respectfully bringing up a person’s awareness should be enough the first time, and that doing anything that might cause difficulty or even jeopardy at their work is unnecessarily heavy-handed and counter-productive. I hope that no one tattles to her employer. Considering the nature of this, that would be childishly spiteful.

  • Christophe Thill

    “Caroline, I think French carols in French class are ok. Religion and religious holidays are part of culture. Now, if your math teacher was doing it, we’d have a different situation.”

    I really don’t see why carols sung in mathematical language would mean a different situation…

  • Sensible Mind

    Looks like she closed her blog

  • Becky

    Wow that sucks; she deleted her whole blog. I don’t want to be a bully, and chase people away. I was pleased when richard said he talked to her; I feel comfortable that he articulated the way we all feel about this well enough. There was no need to delete her blog. 🙁

  • Becky

    ….nevermind. She just Made a private one.

  • Ape Toast

    I also contacted Crystal. The closure of her blog was an understandable reaction to OUR less than FRIENDLY attacks.

    I must emphasize the use of “OUR”. Though most atheists desire public acceptance, we all too often seem to revel in our outsider status.

    We must at least make attempts at diplomacy.

    Crystal plans to re-open her public blog after the holidays. Good for her.

  • Adrian

    Mmm… She got maybe 10-15 comments on a single post. I took the time to read a dozen other posts and they had only a smattering of comments from adoring (Christian) fans so it wasn’t like we were trashing her blog. For the most part the comments weren’t personal or “venomous” but were expressing concerns for an excluded minority.

    I have to wonder if, instead of promoting Catholic “culture” she had promoted “male culture”, would rebuttals be described as “venomous”? If she only had one black student and one asian, would it be venomous to object to her teaching white culture?

    Those nasty egalitarians, speaking up for minorities have hurt the poor Catholic’s feelings. If her feelings were hurt by a handful of people expressing their views when she is in a self-admitted majority, how must it feel to be one of the students in her class?

  • Ape Toast

    I’m not defending her actions . . . not defending personal attacks or threats either.

    My point: It does not serve us well to be perceived as bullies.

    I agree; most responses were constructive.

  • Crystal

    I almost hesitate to write here, but I think you all should have an update.

    I am Crystal.

    I took down the nativity scene (or took it home rather)as well as the rest of the holiday decorations. I never intended to hurt or exclude anyone or any group by having it as part of the classroom decor, and if that is what it causes, then it must go. I became an educator in order to set a good example for my kids, and I think in this case, putting away the decorations is just that. Many thanks to Richard, Ape Toast, and others for their kind and reasonable discussion. You have been a great help and I wish you the best.

    At some point the blog will be back up and running, but for now I would like to take a break.
    Best wishes to you all.

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