A Nebraska elementary school principal has been placed on administrative leave following public backlash over the school's holiday policies. Those since-revised rules banned Christmas-related items – including candy canes, reindeer and the traditional Christmas colors red and green – in the name of cultural sensitivity.
The principal of Manchester Elementary School – located near Omaha, Nebraska – sent her staff a memo on holiday symbols that does not reflect the Elkhorn Public Schools District's policies, according to a district statement sent to USA TODAY Friday.
Principal Jennifer Sinclair has been placed on administrative leave as of Thursday, the statement says.
The statement comes after religious freedom advocacy group Liberty Counsel published a memo attributed to Manchester Elementary School. The memo outlines specific steps educators were expected to take during the holiday season to remain "inclusive and culturally sensitive."
The memo, also published by the Omaha World-Herald, cites confusion among the staff about the school's holiday policies and reluctantly lays out a list of items that were and were not permitted during the holiday season.
The lists said winter-themed symbols such as sledding, gingerbread people and snowmen were allowed. But symbols associated with Christmas were not, as to avoid promoting a religious holiday.
The memo at times includes explanations for why certain items were disallowed:
- Elf on the Shelf – that's Christmas-related
- Candy Cane – that's Christmas-related. Historically, the shape is a "J" for Jesus. The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection. This would also include different colored candy canes
- Red/Green items – traditional Christmas colors
The memo is signed "the (Unintentional) Grinch who stole Christmas (from Manchester)."
It explains the policies: "I come from a place that Christmas and the like are not allowed in schools ... over the years in my educational career, this has evolved into the expectation for all educators."
The memo's explanation of the candy cane's religious roots is commonly accepted but likely inaccurate, Smithsonian Magazine reports. The religious symbolism referenced was likely popularized after forms of candy canes were already common holiday treats, the publication says.
The memo is a part of an ongoing investigation and would not be released by the district at this time, Kara Perchal, communications coordinator for Elkhorn Public Schools District, told USA TODAY on Friday.
The district's policies say that learning activities must have a secular purpose and avoid "excessive governmental entanglement with religion." Activities and programs must neither advance nor inhibit religion, the policies say.
The Liberty Counsel says it petitioned the school district to change the elementary school's policies in a letter dated Nov. 30. That letter cites concerns about the memo.
"The First Amendment simply does not require elimination of all Christmas symbols – religious and secular – in a misguided attempt to be 'inclusive' by eliminating all traditional elements of a federally– and state-recognized holiday. The effort to comprehensively eliminate Christmas symbols is Orwellian," the letter says.
During the holidays, many public schools struggle to maintain the separation of church and state while acknowledging holiday customs with religious connections.
Last year, one Indiana public charter school made headlines for its decision to downplay Christmas and other religious holidays.
"It doesn't matter how you celebrate Christmas in school," Leslie Draper, the head of Inspire Academy, said. "Inevitably, it's not going to align with somebody's viewpoint."
Another Indiana school ran into legal trouble in 2015 when its longstanding nativity tradition drew a lawsuit.
Contributing: Seth Slabaugh, The (Muncie, Ind.) Star Press