Nativity ruckus leads to bond issue defeat

Thursday, December 16, 2004

MUSTANG, Okla. -- 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 to defeat bond measures worth nearly $11 million.

Tuesday's rejection of the two measures -- one of which would have paid for construction of an elementary school -- marked the first time in more than a decade that voters in this bedroom community west of Oklahoma City denied additional funds for their school district.

The day before the election, dozens of parents at a school board meeting expressed outrage at Superintendent Karl Springer's decision to end the school's tradition of closing the Christmas play with a manger scene.

Both of the bond issues in Mustang received about 55 percent support, but 60 percent was needed for approval.

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

Concerned over the issue of separation of church and state, Springer had sought advice from the school board attorney, who recommended that the Nativity scene be removed. The children still got to sing "Silent Night," but Springer took out the manger scene.

"Probably in my life I've never had to make a decision as difficult as this," said Springer, who added that he thinks his choice hurt support for the bond measures.

"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 protested outside the auditorium where the play was performed Thursday night. The protesters staged their own live Nativity scene. Some carried signs reading, "No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas."

Some parents were angry that Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and symbols of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were left in the production.

"If you're going to cut one symbol, then cut them all," said Shelly Marino, the parent of a third-grader at the elementary school. "Santa Claus was in the play and a Christmas tree was displayed, but that's not a Christian symbol."

Tuesday's votes came at a time that Christian conservatives across the country, energized by the re-election of President Bush, have been working to increase the Christian aspects of Christmas.

Some have criticized or boycotted retailers and other businesses they say are giving up "Merry Christmas" wishes in favor of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."

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