"Liberals have taken a true religious observance and used it for their own
nihilistic reasons." -Latino objector
BRAVE NEW SCHOOLS
District sued over
'Day of the Dead'
4th-graders taking part in activities associated with ancient 'ritual'
By Diana Lynne
© 2002 WorldNetDaily.com
October 30, 2002
A public-interest law firm has filed a lawsuit to stop the classroom
activities of fourth-graders at a Petaluma, Calif., public elementary school
planned in observance of "El Dia de los Muertos" or "Day of the Dead."
WorldNetDaily reported Monday, although administrators and teachers at
McNear Elementary School modified the planned lessons, they chose to ignore
a "cease and desist" letter sent by the
States Justice Foundation, or USJF.
USJF argues in the lawsuit that McNear Elementary and the Petaluma City
School District are violating the Establishment Clause of the First
Amendment by promoting religion. The suit additionally points out that the
planned "Day of the Dead" activities also violate the district's own
policies which state that: "School sponsored programs shall not be, nor have
the effect of being, religiously oriented or a religious celebration."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kathy Bricker, a mother who is raising
her fourth-grade daughter according to her Christian beliefs. Bricker
contacted USJF only after her complaints to the school principal and
district superintendent were ignored.
"I have the right to send my daughter to school to learn math, reading
and writing without having a religious ritual shoved down her throat,"
Bricker told WorldNetDaily.
reported that according to an Oct. 11 letter sent home to parents, the
9-year-olds were slated to "celebrate" the traditional Meso-American holiday
by "putting together an ofrenda," which was defined in an accompanying flier
as an "altar," with "symbolic items" and were to be "bringing in a picture
and write up fond memories about a deceased family member, friend or pet."
According to the written handouts provided to parents, the traditional
"Day of the Dead" celebration is a "ritual event in which the spirits of
dead loved ones are invited to visit the living as honored guests" and
reflects the ancient Aztec belief that death is a part of life. As the
handouts describe, "families often set up ofrendas or altars, bearing
pictures, lighted candles and traditional items including marigolds, bread,
fruit, and favorite foods of deceased family members."
The foundation argued the references in these materials sent to parents
to "altars," "symbolic items," "remembrance" and "welcoming death" were
"religious themes" that indicated the event was intended to be a practical
application of "spiritual and religious themes."
In response to USJF's "cease and desist" letter, school attorney Robert
Henry offered assurances that "students will be learning about the holiday,
not observing it or celebrating it."
McNear teachers then sent an Oct. 25 letter home with students providing
parents with an "update of fourth-grade students' activities related to El
Dia de los Muertos." This letter abandoned its earlier language indicating
students would "celebrate" the holiday. Instead, over the course of three
days, the children would be viewing parts of a documentary film on the
"ancient origins of the celebration, current celebrations in Mexico plus San
Francisco adaptations including a classroom experience."
The students, according to the letter, would also be invited, but not
required, to bring in a photograph of a deceased loved one or pet. They
would also learn about the "cultural use of symbolic artifacts" and then
participate in the various craft activities that Mexicans take part in.
Students would be given choices to include creating "masks, jumping
'mariachi style' skeletons, marigolds and sugar skulls," according to
To the Aztecs, skulls symbolized death and rebirth.
The Oct. 25 letter sent home with the students sought permission from
parents for their child's participation in the planned activities and
offered them limited opportunity to review the video clips to be shown in
class. These gestures, made subsequent to USJF's "cease and desist" letter
and WND's inquiry, fall short of complying with California education code,
according to USJF, which requires parental permission for classroom
activities or discussion pertaining to family values, morality and religious
Sugar-coating a religious holiday?
"There is no neutral way for [Petaluma City Schools] to 'celebrate' the
'Day of the Dead,'" states USJF in its lawsuit, pointing out that the
school's own materials admit that "Day of the Dead" is associated with
"Christian Holy Days." USJF also argues the video shown to students contains
graphic depictions and objects bearing religious significance to those who
practice rituals associated with the "Day of the Dead," including pictures
of "Our Lady of Guadalupe," sexual references made about the living and the
dead, and testimonies and descriptions of religious beliefs held by persons
interviewed on the videotape.
the court in its determination of whether or not a reasonable person would
understand the "Day of the Dead" to be religious in nature, USJF submitted
dozens of articles that show a wide array of universities, private citizens
and local agencies view "Day of the Dead" as essentially religious in
Despite its religious origins, many Hispanic residents of Petaluma and
the San Francisco Bay area tell WorldNetDaily that the school is giving
students a distorted and warped impression of "Day of the Dead."
One resident of Mexican heritage who does not wish to be named wrote:
I, too, am appalled at the "Day of the Dead" "festivities" in the Bay
Area community and its schools. ... The core of those promoting these
events are actually white, non-Hispanic liberals and a handful of "Latino
artists." What they celebrate is a caricature of the true "Dia de los
Muertos" holiday. These people celebrate as if it's Mardi Gras. They seem
to leave out that in Mexico this solemn holiday is celebrated with Holy
Mass, usually at the cemetery. Women recite the Holy Rosary for the Poor
Souls in Purgatory. Men drink alcohol and reminisce; people crying is not
a rare sight. Music is always muted. Dances performed, only by indigenous
communities, are also solemn and usually part of a liturgy that has
incorporated native customs. My family and all Latinos I know find the
celebrations performed here as foreign. ... Liberals have taken a true
religious observance and used it for their own nihilistic reasons.
Richard Ackerman, litigation counsel for USJF, suspects the distortion is
all part of the strategy.
"They've so distorted the 'Day of the Dead' event that they've
disenfranchised it from its traditional cultural and religious meaning so
that they'll be able to argue that it's not a religious holiday," Ackerman
"It's being sugar-coated as a little fiesta," Bricker agreed.
School officials' response
denies the event is unconstitutional and maintains the school is merely
following state guidelines for curriculum that require, according to
Eckhardt, the study of "social, political, cultural and economic life and
interactions among the people of California from pre-Columbian societies to
"We've not planned an event per se," Eckhardt stressed, "We've planned a
series of social studies lessons, some of which have already occurred. ...
We feel there is a very good curricular as well as cultural basis for our
District superintendent Carl Wong is equally unfazed by the lawsuit.
"I stand by and support the principal and the teaching position," Wong
told WND. "My decision is based on the fact that I've reviewed the teaching
units and find them educationally sound, and in consultation with our legal
counsel, I'm confident that it's legal under current educational code, as
well as our local governing board policy."
"And as a Petaluma resident," he added, "I commend the teachers for
making the effort to have an activity that's inclusive, because we have a
significant Latino population."
In fact, Petaluma is sponsoring an elaborate citywide "Day of the Dead"
celebration that began Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 2. As part of the
celebration, traditional "Day of the Dead" altars are on display at 27
locations throughout town, including Petaluma City Hall, Petaluma Health
Center, Petaluma Regional Library and the Petaluma Community Center,
The Petaluma Arts Council, which organized the events along with Abraham Solar, the
Hispanic pastoral director for St. Vincent DePaul Church.
"Americans have a little bit of fear about death," the Santa Rosa Press
Democrat quotes Solar as saying. "This shows we don't have fear because we
make fun of death."
Solar moved to the United States from Mexico City in 1986 and began
organizing "Day of the Dead" events five years ago, reports the Press
According to the Art Council's website, the event is partially
underwritten by the city hotel-tax fund and the Petaluma Health Care
A hearing on the USJF lawsuit is scheduled in Sonoma County Superior
Court for this afternoon.
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