Fund-Raiser Felled by Religious Approach to Secularism : A Sherman Oaks public school’s Yule tree sale didn’t appear controversial until opponents invoked doctrine of separation between church and state.

<i> Janet Bernson is a free-lance writer who lives in Sherman Oaks</i>

Just this once, I thought, money might grow on trees. It didn’t and I’m still not sure why.

The defeat of our school’s bold fund-raising plan may have been related to teacher bitterness, or ambient cussedness, or unreasoning sensitivity to anything connected with religion, or the dark side of so-called school-based management. Those are my choices. To be fair, I suppose, there may have been honest disagreement over fundamental principles among people of goodwill. But, no, I don’t really think so.

Whatever my story means, here it is.

My son’s school, the Millikan Middle School Performing Arts Magnet in Sherman Oaks, desperately needs money to transform a shop into a dance studio.


Since I am active on the school’s fund-raising committee, I was approached in the fall by a friend who has a tree farm in Oregon. “I’ve got an idea for your school to make a bundle,” he said, and I was hooked.

We parents would invest the cost of cutting and hauling the trees. In turn, we would sell them on the school grounds. With luck we could make $15,000 and launch our dance-room project.


Right from the start we were ecumenical beyond ecumenism. Our trees would be not only nondenominational but universal. Our trees would symbolize timbers of the pre-Christian German woods, not the Nativity. With each tree, we would give away literature on Yggdrasil, Ishtar, the Tree of Life and so on, thus educating children about mythology and true multiculturalism and avoiding any taint of religious isolationism.

I called everybody on the fund-raising committee, and we enthusiastically planned a pre-sale. Buyers would pay in advance so we could order only what we needed, avoiding the risk of leftover inventory. Everyone on the committee caught the tree bug, and we were raring to go--until we got entangled in red tape.

I should explain that some decisions at L.A. schools lie in the hands of a campus Shared Leadership Council that includes administrators, teachers, parents, office staff and students.

The principal and vice principals of the school all thought the idea was fine. Our Parents-Teachers-Students Assn. did too--it wanted order forms, not controversy. The powerful calendar committee of the Shared Leadership Council voted for the plan, as did the full council, using its emergency telephone procedure (even though, ominously, one teacher pointedly dissented and two political fence-sitters, a teacher and an office employee, abstained).


The trouble came from a handful of teachers who objected on grounds of separation of church and state. Insisting that the trees were religious symbols for Christmas and therefore would offend Jewish pupils and neighbors, they threatened legal action if we followed through on our sale.

I was surprised, since Jewish parents (myself included) were among the most supportive of the Yule Tree Sale in the first place.

But by the time the full Shared Leadership Council held a face-to-face meeting four weeks ago, Jewish neighbors had called to complain, a rabbi had written denouncing the plan, the faculty had been split down the middle, threats of a lawsuit and a wildcat strike had swept through the halls, and it was becoming clear that the tree sale was dead. Despite the grass-roots democratic vote, the principal announced that the idea was simply too divisive for us to proceed.

When I asked one of the opposing teachers how we ought to raise the money, she replied, “That’s not my job. Perhaps you could sell trees at another time of the year.” I went home feeling sad and pulled out my books with information on mythology and the history of trees.

Trees represent knowledge. Everybody knows about Eve’s apple tree. In the Haggada, it’s a fig tree. In Rome the fig tree Ruminalis was worshiped as a goddess symbol. Pomegranates adorned King Solomon’s temple.

Yule trees were introduced to England by Prince Albert of Germany when he married Victoria, thus passing on the pagan (not Judeo-Christian) winter custom of tree worship. Am I starting to sound like Joseph Campbell? Thank you.



Perhaps more to the point, the school district’s legal counsel had said the sale would be legal. Other L.A. public schools have tree sales without litigation or fury. Canoga Park High School is selling them--alive so you can keep one permanently--and bluntly calls them Christmas trees. Students at Patrick Henry middle and Chatsworth high schools announced record Christmas-tree pre-sales the other day. Some time ago, the Supreme Court of the United States, drawing fine lines about what’s church and what’s not, ruled Christmas trees to be among the secular symbols of the holiday.

The issue was rehashed for two hours at our Shared Leadership Council meeting.

Someone proposed that next year we hold a holiday sale of multicultural religious items so as to include everyone.

“Do you mean that if we sold trees next year it would be all right?” someone asked. The anti-tree faction agreed, “as long as there will be religious objects from other cultures.” Menorahs and crucifixes for sale--order now from your local school? I’m no lawyer, but I have a suspicion this is not the solution to this problem. Fortunately, the school administration, the Shared Leadership Council and the PTSA have a year to wrestle with it.

Meanwhile, if we want to get that dance room for our kids, we’ll have to go back to selling candy and hope a teacher on a diet doesn’t close us down.