Christmas Trees are OK!

A court in California has issued an interesting decision regarding Christmas trees. In Lyons v. Carmel Unified School District, 2021 WL 5865521 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 10, 2021), a parent filed a lawsuit on behalf of her children, asserting that their school district regularly endorses Christian beliefs and traditions while disfavoring those of other religions, making her children feel like outsiders while attending school because they are Jewish and not Christian.  While the lawsuit (which is ongoing) contains serious and troubling allegations of systemic endorsement of Christian beliefs and traditions, the court’s initial opinion focused on one event: a weekend tree lighting ceremony being held at the school by the Parent Teacher Association (“PTA”).

Upon learning about the tree lighting event, Ms. Lyons contacted the PTA president and asked if she could display a 6-foot-tall inflatable menorah at the event.  According to Ms. Lyons, the PTA president said “Sure,” but added that they needed the permission of the school principal.  Lyons emailed the principal (and copied the superintendent), and the principal also gave his permission.  So when the school sent out an email flier announcing the “River School, PTA Tree Lighting,” and stating that families could bring an item to decorate the tree, so long it would fit within a paper lunch bag (to make sure that everyone could put something on the tree), Lyons figured that the size restrictions did not apply to her “pre-approved” 6-foot-tall menorah.

Lyons then went a step further, though:  she copied the original flier, changed its header to “River Families Menorah Lighting,” told families they could bring their own menorahs to the event, and then emailed the second flier to the same group of families.  The school district’s superintendent then contacted Lyons and told her that she needed “to comply with the PTA’s parameters for participation in the tree lighting event,” which did not include a large blowup menorah. The principal then stated that there would be no “menorah lighting,” and the school sent out an email to everyone stating that an “altered invitation” containing false information had been sent out without school approval, and that there would be no menorah lighting.

One interesting aspect of this case is the difference between how the central administration and the school treated the PTA. In correspondence with the family’s attorney, the school district’s attorney told them that the PTA was an outside organization that had properly sought permission to use school district facilities, and that it was therefore their event, but that Lyons could also apply to use school property for a menorah lighting event (although the school district would not give permission to two groups to use the same property at the same time).  The school district made the same argument when Lyons sought a temporary restraining order to force the district to allow the menorah, but Lyons countered that the PTA president had approved the menorah.  Lyons argued that it had really been the principal (and then the superintendent) who had actually denied permission to display the menorah.

The judge agreed that based on the evidence before her, it appeared that it had been the school district (and not really the PTA) that made the decision to deny the menorah.  This is actually a common problem, as many school districts struggle with how to properly treat PTAs (and other booster clubs) which are at least technically outside organizations, but which obviously exist only to interact with a particular school, and which are often completely controlled in reality by the school principal.

Ultimately, however, the Court ruled that the exclusion of the menorah did not violate the First Amendment.  The Court focused on the Supreme Court’s County of Allegheny decision:

“The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol….Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas.” County of Allegheny v. A.C.L.U. Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 616 (1989).

Allowing the Christmas tree but not the menorah, concluded the Court, therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Lyons’ free speech viewpoint discrimination cause of action was a stronger claim, if one assumed that it was the school that excluded the menorah, but the Court felt that the decision was a proper exercise of “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on the celebration,” since it could find no cases that would allow someone to participate in an event in a different manner than what had originally been planned. The Court distinguished Lamb’s Chapel, in which the Supreme Court held that it was viewpoint discrimination to refuse to allow an outside group to use a school building to show films on family values and child-rearing because they were religiously oriented, where such films otherwise would have been permitted, because that case “did not hold or even suggest that the church would have been permitted to show its films at the event of another group that had reserved the facilities for a particular date.”  The Court therefore denied the request for a temporary restraining order.

So is the decision correct?  The ruling that one outside group should not be allowed to essentially hijack another group’s event seems reasonable, and Lyons probably went too far, after gaining permission to display her inflatable menorah, in essentially trying to publicly recast the entire event as including a menorah lighting.  It is bothersome that the PTA president appears to have agreed to the inflatable menorah, so the school district was not really enforcing the original time, place and manner restrictions of the event by excluding the menorah. However, events like these sometimes evolve beyond their original facts by the time they reach a court, so it is not surprising that the judge focused on everything that Lyons was requesting, and not just the inflatable menorah.

This case bears watching as it moves forward. It is essentially a First Amendment version of a “systemic racism” case, in that there appear to be numerous allegations that the school district created an educational program that, perhaps unintentionally, promotes Christianity and makes adherents of other religions feel like second-class citizens. Although she did not reach those issues in her decision, the judge noted that they were both serious and troubling.