Jewish parent Shel Lyons, who has a third-grader at the K-5 Carmel River School and is the parent of two of its graduates, has for some time scrutinized the school’s practices for what she describes as a pattern of favoring Christianity over other religions.

But this year, scrutiny came also from a federal judge after Lyons, an attorney, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California.

Lyons says while Christmas-themed celebrations and symbols are everywhere at the school, symbols of other holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, are not. When a Hanukkah song was sung at her child’s kindergarten holiday music show several years ago, it was introduced as an “Israeli” song, she said, implying to her that the Christmas songs were simply “American” songs.

The dispute raises questions about the difference between showing preference to a specific religion — which is unconstitutional by a public school, according to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — versus what officials at the Carmel River School are calling the use of nonreligious symbols to celebrate the holiday season.

At the center of Lyons’ lawsuit, filed Dec. 7 in federal court in San Jose, is a tree-lighting event, which was to take place three days later. The Dec. 10 gathering was hosted by the Parent Teachers Association, which required the permission of administrators to hold the event on school property.

Though described as a tree lighting, the festivities also involved decking the tree, planted on school grounds, with ornaments and lights. It was billed as religion-neutral. 

The PTA invited families to bring an item to decorate the tree “that reflects their family, heritage, and/or faith.”

Lyons was not at all interested in decorating the tree with a Jewish or Hanukkah-themed object, she said in no uncertain terms; she and her husband “were shocked by the ignorance and offensiveness of that suggestion,” she said.

Instead, she asked to bring a Hanukkah object — a 6-foot tall inflatable hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah — to display alongside the tree. 

The PTA and the school refused, saying it did not meet the qualifications for an ornament: that the object be able to fit into a paper lunch bag.

Legally, Lyons has a tough road ahead. That’s according to Charles Russo, a law professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in education law and in 2014 co-authored a paper on legal issues surrounding the celebration of Christmas in public schools. (Lyons has asked the judge to declare the Carmel River School’s practices unconstitutional, and to order school administrators to change course).

Russo pointed to the fact that the Supreme Court has determined Christmas trees and Santa Claus to be secular, not religious, symbols.

Full story at Jewish News of Northern California.