ST. JOHN, Ind. (CBS) — Not even the holidays are safe from debate about masking in schools as a COVID-19 mitigation.
As CBS 2’s Marie Saavedra reported Thursday night, a back-and-forth in St. John, Indiana has spread to a Christmas icon.READ MORE: 'I Missed Him The Whole Time': Chicago Family Grateful As Father Recovers From Shooting, Attempted Carjacking
Christmas in the Park is a St. John tradition, started 17 years ago by the family of the current St. John Town Clerk-Treasurer, Beth Hernandez. Now, she says this event has been used to promote a message that divides this community.
At issue is one of the more than 100 Christmas trees filling Prairie West Park. A six-foot evergreen carries a message to the local school district- “unmask the kids.”
The tree is decked with blue and white ornaments that match promotional pencils, the stylized choice by Raymens LLC. The town accepts $75 donations from companies or nonprofits to sponsor a tree and decorate, but we couldn’t find “Raymens LLC” with that particular spelling listed in the Indiana Business Portal.
A woman who called herself Jenna McJen has a student in Lake Central School Corporation and supports the tree.
“I think it’s great,” McJen said. “There’s a lot of trees out here that are out for really good causes, and we’re just one of them.”READ MORE: 1 New York City Police Officer, Suspect Killed In Harlem Shooting
She also supports a lawsuit filed last week by five other parents against the Lake Central School Corporation, its superintendent, and members of its board. It argues the school corporation’s mandatory masking rule “violates Indiana law, and both the state and country’s constitutions.”
“It’s important for kids to see each other’s faces and smiles,” McJen said. “it’s really all about smiles, and you know, living a normal life.”
We found critics of the suit and the tree on St. John’s Clerk-Treasurer’s Facebook page, where people can vote for their favorite. On woman’s comment echoes most of them – calling it a shame the entry was permitted, and saying it shows ignorance and divisiveness.
What it certainly does is remind us that the opinions of others are something we can never escape, not even during the holidays.
In her statement, the clerk-treasurer said the tree will stand. It is not obscene, and doesn’t violate any guidelines, so she will honor the sponsor’s free speech.
But she did concede that those guidelines may change in the future, to keep the focus of the event on holiday joy.MORE NEWS: No One In Custody As Investigation Continues Into Hit-And-Run That Killed Retired Police Officer Richard Haljean In Edison Park
The clerk-treasurer’s full statement is as follows:
“I don’t like that our Christmas in the Park event was used to promote a message that ultimately divides us. Our employees and I put blood, sweat, and tears into making this event beautiful. My family started this event 17 years ago and I’ve been blessed to continue it over the last 6 years. I have been put in an impossible position. I can remove the tree and censor the sponsor’s freedom of speech or allow the tree to remain, which causes this uproar. When I asked myself if the tree is profane or obscene or violates any of the guidelines that were set in place, the answer is no. I do not have the right to remove the tree simply because of its message. This particular tree sponsor chose to display this message and if I removed the message, I would be censoring the sponsor’s freedom of speech. I’ve been asked if I would allow a “mask up” tree to remain and the answer is yes, this year at least. In the 6 years that I have taken over this event, I’ve never encountered something like this. Will it require us to add to the guidelines of our tree sponsors in the future? Most likely. I hate that this beautiful event has been, hopefully temporarily, taken over by this debated topic. It isn’t the purpose of this event. The purpose is to spend time with family and friends and enjoy the Christmas-themed activities planned for the kids. Hopefully we can get back to enjoying the true purpose of this event.”