Residents and school officials in Oak Lawn said they want to unite their community after a tense three-week debate divided some Christians and Muslims.
Late Tuesday night, at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting in a packed room, the Ridgeland School District 122 board voted to keep its Christmas and Halloween parties and to add a Ramadan celebration as well.
The tumult began when a parent strung lights with stars and moons inside one of the elementary schools. A PTA member objected to the decoration, saying that the reference was to Ramadan and that the school didn’t allow religious symbols.
Elizabeth Zahdan, who hung the lights, asked the school board why it would permit Christmas trees and Santa Claus and not allow an acknowledgment of her faith. The school board immediately began considering a ban on all religious references — including the annual Christmas party — so as not to offend any group.
That outraged parents whose children revel in the Christmas-themed celebrations, and many attended the meeting to speak in favor of the Christian observances.
Rima Najjar Kapitan, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she believes it will take work to heal the rift exposed by the debate.
“I think in the long term, Muslim families and Christian families will be able to get along,” she said.
As for the board’s decision to include Ramadan in its holiday festivities, she said, “It’s exactly what we wanted. It’s a very reasonable position. It’s the obvious solution. You continue to celebrate Christmas and the religion of other constituents.”
Roughly 30 percent of the district’s pupil population is Muslim.
June Quigley, a mother of two, said that although the debate has been raucous, requiring police to calm one discussion, she believes the community will arrive at a peaceful solution.
“I don’t think there’s a big divide,” she said. “We’re all together. It was never an issue of race or anything like that.”
Quigley said she is in favor of a Ramadan celebration, though there are many details to be worked out.
Parent Pat Flanigan said, “If these few wish to celebrate Ramadan, it should be allowed on a much smaller scale because this is religion. If they insist on this, then we should be able to openly display nativity scenes and other items.”
Supt. Thomas Smyth said after the meeting that his district “embraces all ethnic and religious groups.”
Eric Trimberger, assistant superintendent, said the district has to move on to solve its budgetary woes.
Having already axed art, music and band programs, there will be even more cuts unless voters pass a referendum issue in February.
Copyright © 2007 Chicago Tribune