OAK LAWN, Ill. — A string of red plastic lanterns adorns preschool classroom 138 at Harnew School, hung by a Muslim student to share an Arab tradition during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"They signify light and a time of being neighborly, respectful and reaching out to help," teacher Kathy Montesano explained to students during circle time on the carpet.
The peaceful lesson was in contrast to an uproar that divided parents for weeks this fall after a Muslim parent in the 2,100-student district just outside Chicago asked to hang lights featuring crescent moons and stars — and the school board responded by considering a ban on celebrating religious holidays.
Hundreds of people showed up at school board meetings. Some complained about the loss of Santa and claimed Muslims were being demanding. A non-Muslim parent yelled ethnic slurs. Police were called. And the woman whose request sparked the controversy said she was threatened with violence.
But earlier this month, Ridgeland School District 122 — where 30% of students are Muslim — made an uncommon compromise: It would add Ramadan to a list of approved holidays, along with Christmas and Halloween.
"We will continue to recognize the separation of church and state. The theology of religion will remain at home," its directive now reads. "Christmas, Halloween and Ramadan will be celebrated ... Santa will stay the same."
For years, schools nationwide have quietly accommodated Muslim students on a case-by-case basis, providing places to pray, alternatives to sitting in the lunchroom while fasting and excused absences for holidays. But as Muslim populations surge, they find that's not enough.
"Oak Lawn has changing demographics," said Superintendent Tom Smyth. "Basically, as those numbers increase or have been increasing, we've been trying to do some accommodation."
But religious-liberty expert Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center says, "Public schools should not be 'celebrating' Ramadan, Christmas or any other religious holiday. Instead, schools should be teaching about some of the major religious holidays throughout the school year as part of the academic program.
"Adding Ramadan to the 'approved list' of holiday celebrations creates confusion about what is and isn't permissible under the First Amendment," Haynes said. "Ramadan, like the religious aspects of Christmas, should be acknowledged as part of the educational program not celebrated."
Other communities are facing similar issues. When Hillsborough County Schools in Florida in 2005 considered ending all days off for religious holidays instead of adding Muslim holidays, the district received more than 3,500 critical e-mails from around the country.
"As schools are getting more diverse, this kind of thing is happening," said Bruce Gelle, director of Religion and Public Education Resource Center at California State University, Chico.
The controversy in Oak Lawn began when Elizabeth Zahdan, a PTA member with three children in the district, wanted to hang lights featuring crescent moons and stars, symbols commonly associated with Islam. She'd hung Christmas and Halloween decorations in the past, so she thought it was only fair.
"They were misinformed about what was happening in the classroom; they thought they were teaching religion there," said Salma Alramli, a parent with four children in the school district. "People are afraid. It's fearful for them to know that their communities or their schools have to incorporate Ramadan."
When the school board then talked of banning all holiday celebrations, things turned nasty.
Alramli, who immigrated to the Chicago area 37 years ago when she was 2, said she heard other parents utter ethnic slurs she hadn't heard since she was a child.
As the debate continued over several weeks, mostly during Ramadan, blame for unrelated issues was pinned on Zahdan — even the district's earlier decision to remove pork from the menus. Smyth said it was a cost-saving move for the cash-strapped district that has had to cut music, and had nothing to do with Islam.
Zahdan claims another parent threatened her with violence during the holiday controversy. She did not file a police report, but instead asked the Chicago branch of the Council of American and Islamic Relations to talk to the school and community about Islam.
"This hatred will continue on and on. So I want people to be educated," Zahdan said. "Ramadan is associated with giving, charity ... and caring for the community, being a good citizen. It's not different from Christmas or the concept behind Easter."
Muslim students at Harnew, where halls have Christmas and Ramadan posters, seem to know or care little about the controversy. None of the 20 students fasting on a recent day said they had difficulty with other students.
"Some people ask me if it's similar to Christmas," 10-year-old Ezalden Khater said. "I say we don't have a Christmas tree, but it feels like a Thanksgiving feast every time we break our fasts."
But teachers and principals are grappling with how to heal the rift — and celebrate the Muslim holiday without violating laws.
"With Christmas, it's very easy to secularize. Santa? Secular. Snowmen? Secular. Ramadan is tricky," said Lisa Soronen, a senior staff attorney with the National School Board Association. "This is about humans trying to kind of meet in the middle and come up with solutions that meet the needs of the community."
Mothers of Muslim students at Harnew have planned an after-school party for all kids to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of fasting that Muslims will celebrate in the coming days.
A third-grade teacher at Harnew wants to put together a lesson on Ramadan by incorporating science and the cycles of the moon. And in the past week, school officials met with leaders of the Mosque Foundation in neighboring suburban Bridgeview.
"We feel this is one of the major issues we need to deal with," said Imam Kifah Mustapha. "How can we diffuse this tension for the long-term?