Last week, the Superintendent of the Newton County School System, announced her 4th annual holiday card art contest. The language and intent of this press release has been misunderstood by some folks and it has been offensive to others. I am one of those who were offended (we will get to that at the end).
I would like to apologize to anyone offended by the language of the press release. **
This is the fourth year in which this announcement has been made using this exact same language:
“Students are asked to design a theme that reflects winter in the school district; Covington, Georgia; the holiday; etc. All ideas are welcome; however, in an effort to be inclusive of the entire NCSS student body, only nonreligious themes and language will be considered.” (source: NewtonCountySchools.org)
The intent of this contest is to showcase the artistic talents of willing students. The contest is not designed to infringe on anyone’s rights or to offend anyone. This contest is optional. Because the Superintendent uses general funds to print and mail these winter holiday cards, these cards shouldn’t contain religious icons, symbols or phrases.
Now some of the confusion surrounds a Facebook post by the Newton Citizen that reads:
“Newton Schools is asking students to design the holiday cards they will be sending this year. No religious themes will be accepted.” (source: Newton Citizen Facebook Page)
The press release clearly states that “ALL ideas are welcome…” The Newton Citizen misquoted the press release. The Citizen is a fine newspaper and I don’t believe there was any malicious intent on their part. However, like many Facebook posts, we simply read the headline and never read the entire article.
To clarify: Religious themes WILL be accepted.
Now you might ask, “Why would I submit a card with a Nativity Scene or a Menorah candle if I know it won’t be selected as the contest winner?” The simple answer, because you have that right. The Superintendent will see your artwork and admire it for what it is, but she won’t be able to use it for the holiday card that will be mailed out using taxpayer funds. We could argue whether or not the Superintendent should mail out holiday cards, but the cost is miniscule for the return of showcasing our students’ talents while wishing friends and vendors a “Happy Holiday.”
The question that I had centered around the apparent contradiction of “holiday” card and “nonreligious themes”. The origin of the word “holiday” is from Old English where they combined Holy Days into one word to describe a day(s) set aside for a religious celebration. You can see the confusion when asking for artwork that is nonreligious for a holiday card. However, Westerners have adapted the word “holiday” to include religious AND non-religious special days. The Federal Government and the US Post Office call the days they are closed “holidays,” which include New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, etc. So, for NCSS to use the language “Winter Holiday” falls in line with other government entities.
So, the Superintendent has announced an art contest.
It is optional to the students.
The purpose is to highlight NCSS students’ artistic talents.
The card is produced and mailed with general funds. And for that reason, it should not contain religious icons, symbols or language.
This is in an effort to be inclusive of all students.
And therein lies where I get offended. Our efforts to be “inclusive.”
No one wants a public school system that is exclusive. Or do we?
Are we possibly using the wrong word to describe what it is that we desire?
Don’t we desire equity over inclusivity?
I believe that in our efforts to be inclusive we try so hard not to offend someone that we offend everyone. While inclusiveness is a noble goal in education, it simply is not the way the world works. The highest GPAs get accepted to prestigious universities. The best athletes make our varsity teams and have potential for college scholarships. And the students with great leadership skills lead our student government organizations. Isn’t this the way it should be?
We are equitable in opportunity but exclusive in selection. The opportunity is open to everyone. The selection is up to someone. And someone chooses based on a criterion of excellence. Those that exceed the criteria are chosen based on their merit. That is an exclusive club.
I believe this contest is “by the books.” I believe it is legitimate. But I also believe it is exclusive. I understand this contest MUST be exclusive because taxpayer funds can’t promote any specific religion. And I agree with that. But to use the reasoning that, “in effort to be inclusive…only nonreligious themes…will be considered…” is by definition, EXCLUSIVE. So, I think we used the wrong language to explain an art contest. I don’t think there was malicious intent…just a poor choice of words.
Maybe a more transparent wording could have been, “Students [who are interested in participating] are asked to design a theme that reflects winter in the school district. [While we respect all religions and their individual winter holidays, this card will be mailed using general funds, therefore] only nonreligious themes and language will be considered.”
The contest is not the problem.
What exactly IS the problem, then?
I believe those who lead public education in the State of Georgia (and potentially the United States) are too quick to err on the side of caution when it involves religion. Personally, I believe this often favors non-religion over religion. In my understanding of the US Constitution, for an education system to favor non-religion over religion is illegal.
The Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thus, I believe we should stop prohibiting the free exercise of our students’ religious beliefs and studies.
I am a Christian and a pastor…and I am not in favor of the Superintendent asking students to produce Christian artwork for Christmas cards that will be mailed using county funds.
- I am in favor of students praying together before school, before meals or sporting events.
- I am for student-led religious groups meeting on campus before, during and after school like any other club.
- I am in favor of renting public school facilities to religious groups for worship services on weekends (not interfering with normal school functions.)
- I am in favor offering state-approved religious classes for credit during the school day.
- I am in favor of a Release Time Policy which allows students to go off-campus to study religion at their house of worship for elective credits.
These are ALL currently allowed under state and federal law (Release Time Policy would have to be enacted by the local board). And religious groups should be taking advantage of these opportunities.
Let us NOT favor non-religion over religion.
Let us all hold to the tenets of the faith that we have.
Let us live in unity with one another in an effort to understand each other better.
We have a great and improving school system. We aren’t perfect. But we are getting better every day. We have a great elected Board who deeply care about your students. And we have one of the best Superintendents in the state of Georgia and the Southeast.
Samantha Fuhrey is a finalist for 2018 Superintendent of the Year.
I don’t know if everyone understands the magnitude of that recognition. She is a bona fide rock star in the education world and we are fortunate to have her at the helm of the Newton County School System.
For the sake of our kids, the future leaders of this great county…let us:
challenge each other by engaging in constructive conversations…
offer equitable opportunities to all…
and allow each other to grow spiritually while not forcing religion or political preference on anyone…
in order to form a more perfect union!
** This post does not necessarily represent the entire elected School Board. I am writing as an individual. I do not even know if my colleagues agree or disagree with me.