Voters angry about Nativity removal help defeat bond issue

Thursday, December 16th 2004, 6:19 am

By: News On 6

MUSTANG, Okla. (AP) _ Voters incensed over a superintendent's decision to remove a Nativity scene from an elementary school Christmas program took out their anger at the ballot box, helping defeat bond measures worth nearly $11 million.

Mustang failed to pass two education bond issues Tuesday, including one that would have paid to build a $10.4 million elementary school.

The bond issues needed 60% of the vote to pass. The proposition to build the school was defeated, getting only 54% of the vote. A second proposition was also defeated, getting only 55% of the vote.

About 2,500 people participated in the election, which marked the first time in more than a decade that a school bond measure failed to be approved in Mustang.

``You have to send a signal and tell them you're not going to stand for it,'' said Tim Pope, a former Republican legislator and leader of the campaign against the bond issues. ``You've got to tell them you're not going to sit by and let them take away your rights.''

A Nativity scene wasn't originally part of this year's Christmas play script, which focused on how children trapped at school by a snow storm celebrated the holiday.

But closing the Christmas play with the manger scene and the singing of ``Silent Night'' has long been a tradition in this bedroom community with more than 25 churches, located about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City.

Concerned over the issue of separation of church and state, Superintendent Karl Springer asked for legal advice from the school board attorney, who recommended the Nativity scene be removed.

The children still got to sing ``Silent Night,'' but Springer took out the manger. He said the Oklahoma Association of School Boards supported his decision.

Symbols of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were included in the production as were a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus.

``I knew that this decision would be a tough one,'' Springer said. ``Probably in my life, I've never had to make a decision as difficult as this. But I had two strong legal opinions that said something we had planned could be illegal. I wanted to make sure we protected our community from some kind of lawsuit.''

About 100 people gathered across the street from the auditorium where the fifth-grade Christmas play was being performed last Thursday. Some carried signs that said ``No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas,'' and others participated in a live Nativity scene.

At a school board meeting on Monday residents complained about the superintendent's decision.

He said after the election that the issue likely played a role in the defeat.

Shelly Marino, the parent of a third-grade student at the elementary school, said it wasn't fair to cut the Nativity scene.

``If you're going to cut one symbol, then cut them all,'' she said. ``Santa Claus was in the play and a Christmas tree was displayed, but that's not a Christian symbol.''

Energized by the re-election of President George Bush, Christian conservatives have been working nationally to highlight the Christian aspects of Christmas. Many are working to reverse political correctness that makes Christmas trees, holiday trees and replaces the Merry Christmas greeting with Happy Holidays.

But the schoolhouse is not the place to do it, said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

``The public school system cannot become a substitute for Sunday school,'' said Lynn, who is also an attorney and a minister with the United Church of Christ. ``The government under our constitution cannot promote any religious ideas, which obviously is the case when a Nativity scene is put up as part of a play at this season of the year.''

Marino said she and a number of other parents want a policy that will ensure the values of the community will be upheld in the school.

Springer has said he will meet with parents and members of the town's ministerial alliance, a group of pastors who often do community work.

``We are all educated people, we could work this out and have it not split the community,'' Marino said. ``We don't want a lawsuit, but we're not going to go away. The fight has been started and we're going to see it through to the end.''

Brently Olsson, an attorney representing parents, said a lawsuit is possible as a last option.

``We are trying to go to the school district to see if we can resolve the issue before a lawsuit is filed. ``Hopefully we can resolve it in the Christmas spirit.''

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