Religion Haunts the Public Square

Another Halloween is over and workers in stores and malls everywhere are boxing up the cardboard spooks and leftover candy.

If only it were that easy for those cursed to lead schools, day care centers, churches and other such groups in an age in which no demilitarized zone exists between sacred and secular. For them, Halloween 1996 is one calendar's worth of committee meetings away. Time flies, when parents are mad at you.

Truth is, the public square remains haunted by religion. You can't mess with death, dying, evil, devils and the like without raising eternal questions, especially when true believers on both sides have lawyers.

So public school leaders can look forward to hearing from Christian parents who believe that events linked to Halloween -- a celebration rooted in Druidic rites for the lord of the dead -- violate their rights. Some will want to see Halloween activities banned or moved outside school hours, or alternatives offered.

On the other side, some will say that history is irrelevant and that Halloween is now a safe, secular holiday -- as opposed to being a dangerous, religious holiday. Others will say complaints about Halloween are part of a Religious Right plot.

Mischievous activists might suggest that schools be consistent and use a strategy popular at Christmas and Hanukkah. In this case, Druids might visit schools and offer an "educational" view of All Hallows Eve or witches could explain why they embrace the holiday. Then Catholics or other Christians could explain the meaning of Nov. 1, All Hallows or Saints Day. (The verb to "hallow" means to sanctify.) Why not let both sides be heard?

This year's actions by the Los Altos, Calif., school board offered a preview of what's ahead.

Church people argued that if Christmas had to be an after-school activity, then the same rule should apply to Halloween. Pro-Halloween parents booed. It was clear that Halloween images were being blended into so many school activities that it would be virtually impossible for parents to ask that their children be exempted from all of them. In some cases, children had been punished for declining to join in activities involving images of witches. Parents on the other side complained that fundamentalists wanted to ban Halloween.

The board finally voted for Halloween, even though this appeared to violate a district policy against events linked to religion occurring during the school day. One doesn't need a church-state degree, or the ability to augur the future by cutting up woodland creatures, to foresee many such media-friendly collisions on the road to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But everyone expects conflicts in public schools, these days. Debates about Halloween strategies also are creating tensions in churches, religious schools and day-care centers. The big question: should people celebrate with the culture or with the church?

Most of today's fiercest Halloween critics are Protestants. Some are going so far as to say that if the culture wants to serve up images of evil and damnation, then churches should join in. Thus, some evangelicals are now offering what amount to sanctified haunted houses in which visitors are walked through scenes depicting what they believe sinners will experience in hell and the glories that await saints in heaven.

Other churches are now sponsoring alternative Halloween events in which children dress up as biblical characters, Christian heroes or angels. Whether they know it or not, many of these Protestants are starting to adapt traditions linked to All Saints Day. This could create problems because, under normal conditions, the last thing many evangelicals and fundamentalists would want to do is look to Catholicism for help.

Sooner or later, all kinds of church leaders will face questions such as: Should churches actively oppose Halloween? Should they merely offer safer, sanitized activities? Should they promote All Saints Day? An even more frightening question looms in the background: How can the church compete with waves of Halloween images on television and at the local mall?

Start planning now, because Halloween will rise again.