BANGOR, Maine — Catherine Gordon has taught math at Bangor High School for 30 years. Nearly every year, she has put a Christmas tree in her classroom, and no student, no parent and no administrator told her it was inappropriate, she said, until Friday.
That’s when she received an email from Principal Paul Butler telling her she had to remove the 32-inch-tall, artificial pink tree, decorated with Hello Kitty ornaments, from her classroom.
“It had no religious symbols on it, no crosses, no angels, no stars, just pink Hello Kittys,” Gordon said Monday afternoon, referring to the well-known Japanese cartoon character. “And, in the 30 years that I’ve decorated for the holidays, I’ve had not one parent contact me, not one parent phone call, not one parent email. Not one child has come up to me and said they thought it was inappropriate and students at this age are very vocal.”
The veteran teacher also said that she received no notice that there had been a change in policy about holiday decorations in classrooms.
“Since my tree has been up for years and years, I thought it was fine to put up a tree up for the 30th year,” Gordon said. “The email said that he thought it favored one religion over another and he thought it was inappropriate.”
Attempts on Monday to reach Butler for comment on school policy regarding the situation were unsuccessful.
Gordon said she put the tree up Wednesday and was told to take it down Friday.
“I’ve been very sad about this whole issue,” Gordon said Monday. “I’m not an activist, I’m not even overly religious. I just thought it was a pink, fun tree and my students really enjoyed it.
“They were sad when they came to class today and saw it was gone,” she said. “They said, ‘Where’s our tree? Not ‘Where’s your tree?’”
Because Gordon had posted a picture of the tree in her classroom on her Facebook page after she assembled it last week, she said she felt obligated to share that she had to remove it.
In her post Friday night, Gordon commented on how the School Department’s attitude toward observing Christmas has changed.
“When I first started teaching, we had parties the last day of school before vacation and the kids would bring in cookies and we played holiday music — none of that is allowed now,” she said. “I feel that this is definitely a turning point in our society — when everything offends everyone all the time — it just sucks the joy out of everything.”
Reaction to Gordon’s social media post about the situation was widespread.
The teacher’s Facebook post had been shared more than 400 times by Monday evening, garnered more than 100 comments and captured the attention of the media in and out of state. She was scheduled to do three phone interviews Tuesday morning with talk radio hosts in Bangor, Portland and Lewiston.
“When I got out of class and turned on my phone, I had 77 messages,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, on Monday afternoon criticized the principal’s directive to Gordon.
“Displaying a decorative Christmas tree is a longstanding tradition in our country,” he said in a news release. “It should not be condemned, especially in our classrooms.
“Our local school teachers and parents should have the ultimate say in how to run their classrooms so long as it does not pose any danger to students or the community,” the congressman continued. “I find the school department’s decision baseless and completely counter to all that our nation stands for.”
Bangor School Superintendent Betsy Webb issued a statement Monday in response to media requests for an explanation of why Gordon was told to remove the tree from her classroom:
“In alignment with national and state standards, the Bangor School Department educates students about culture, traditions and holidays through curriculum ties in English language arts, music, art, social studies and world languages,” Webb said. “Our focus is educating students to become global citizens with the necessary 21st century skills for college and career readiness for their future success.
“Maintaining consistency with this approach has not been an issue for the Bangor School Department, as faculty and staff are committed to what is in the best interest of students and working towards our mission of academic excellence for all,” Webb said.
Zachary Heiden with the Maine Civil Liberties Union of Maine declined to comment on Gordon’s situation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has posted on its website a guide for administrators and teachers titled “Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools.” It includes a section on holiday celebrations.
“The United States Supreme Court has determined that schools may celebrate the holidays and create displays as long as they so do within ‘the context of the Christmas season’ and the religious component of their display does not dominate but simply represents one element of a holiday that has obtained secular status in our society,” it states. “Under [a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court] ruling, a Christmas tree would be appropriate, while a cross or a nativity scene would not. Crosses and nativity scenes are purely religious symbols that have not gained secular status in our society and therefore may not be displayed in public schools.”
The city of Bangor each year displays a donated holiday tree in West Market Square.
Gordon said that she hopes the media attention will spark a dialogue about what is appropriate and what isn’t during the holiday season.
“We have male faculty members wearing ‘The Grinch That Stole Christmas’ ties and we have female staff members wear holiday sweaters and that’s OK that you can wear a tree on a tie or a sweater but not have one in your classroom? So, I think that a good dialogue will come from this and that’s always a good thing if people can talk about an issue calmly. Maybe some good will come of this.”