Judge dismisses religious bias claim in boro schools

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

A Brooklyn federal court judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a College Point mother against the city Department of Education for not allowing the Nativity scene in school holiday displays.

Andrea Skoros, a religious Catholic, filed the lawsuit a year ago on behalf of her two sons, who attend PS 169 in Bay Terrace and PS 184 in Whitestone. Skoros’ older son attended PS 165 in Flushing before transferring to PS 169, but the lawsuit refers to holiday displays at all three schools.

Skoros contended in her suit that the Education Department unfairly favored Jewish and Muslim religious symbols in school holiday displays by forbidding the Nativity scene, although Christmas trees are permitted.

The Nativity scene, also known as a creche, traditionally depicts the baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph and other biblical figures.

In his Feb. 18 decision, Judge Charles Sifton wrote “exclusion of the creche from holiday displays is not discriminatory or hostile towards Christianity but rather serves the holiday display policy’s secular purpose,” which he described as “celebrating the diversity of the winter holiday season.”

According to an Education Department memo, the holiday display policy allows “secular” decorations “including, but not limited to, Christmas trees, menorahs and the star and crescent.”

Holiday displays must be temporary and shown along with decorations from different religions, the memo says.

An Education Department spokesman confirmed in December that even though the Nativity scene was not explicitly forbidden in the policy, it was forbidden in practice.

In his dismissal of the lawsuit, the judge wrote “while the birthdays of historically significant figures are regularly celebrated in this country, it is not a practice to celebrate such anniversaries with a depiction of their birth.”

Skoros, who attends Holy Trinity Church in Whitestone, called the ruling “stupid.”

“I don’t know how you can say that a menorah and a star and crescent are not religious,” she said.

Skoros said one of her sons watched a Hanukkah film in class about “the miracle of the oils.”

“That’s not secular,” she said. “It’s a double standard.”

Robert Muise, the attorney representing Skoros, said the case would be appealed.

“The school has directly targeted one particular religious belief, Christianity, with a policy of exclusion,” he said. “This policy doesn’t promote any of the ideals that the DOE claims it is promoting.”

The city’s corporate counsel, Michael Cardozo, said in a statement “we are pleased that the court’s decision recognized that the Department guidelines correctly followed Supreme Court precedent.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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