Too much of the "heathen" Halloween upset him. But it was not enough Christmas that made him quit.
"Here we cannot praise the name of Jesus Christ, the living son of God and creator of the universe. Yet we are allowed to celebrate Halloween, a pagan observance of every evil and wicked thing in the world," said Gary Denton, until yesterday a fifth-grade techer at Annandale Terrace Elementary School in Fairfax County. "The moral fiber in our children is decaying."
Denton abruptly abandoned his 18-month-long teaching career or full-time ministry work after deciding he was being hassled too much because of his beliefs.
William Tarbox, the principal at the Annandale public school, has a decidely different attitude about Denton's religious posture. Tarbox characterizes the 27-year-old Denton as a "fanatic" who encouraged his students to pray, insisted on teaching evolution according to Genesis, and, in direct defiance of a school guideline played a Christmas album of "devotional nature" to his class.
"I've been in school systems 28 years and I have not run into a person as strong in his convictions as Mr. Denton," said Tarbox yesterday. "But there is no place in our curriculum for this type of thing."
The religious dispute at Annandale Terrace is just one of many holiday headaches facing area school administrators.
Last week a Jewish teacher's aide at Rock Creek Valley Elementary School in Montgomery County dragged a Christmas tree, ornaments and all, from a school office and dumped it on the lawn outside. At Laurel Ridge, another elementary school in Fairfax County, 300 students signed a petition asking the school board to "leave Christmas and Hanukah in our school."
Donald F. Sullivan, executive director for the national capital region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said yesterday, "We have had a real upsurge this season in controversies concerning the whole matter of religious observances in schools. I've observed it in Fairfax and Montgomery counties more than any others."
As for a teacher sharing his or her religious beliefs with a class, outside of an "educational" context, Sullivan said, "We would not feel that's appropriate. This kind of thing belongs in the home or a religious place of worship."
School superintendents and principals, caught between Supreme Court decisions banning religion from public schools and traditional observances of Christian holidays such as Christmas, are making judgments on appropriate" holiday programs. Their decisions are not being universally applauded.
"The complaints are from both sides," said Fairfax human relations coordinator Dan Jackson, who estimated last week that his office had received 100 phone calls related to the controversy.
Against that backdrop, however, Denton's case stands out in bold relief. There is no disputing that he brought his religious convictions into the classroom, even wearing a lapel pin that said: "The difference -- Jesus."
"Jesus said "Go and tell the world.' As a Christian I believe it is very important to share what I believe," said Denton, a bachelor who is the choir director at the Christian Hope Center, a nondenominational "charismatic" church in Silver Spring. "I am not trying to push my views on the children. I am sharing."
Principal Tarbox argues that a fifth-grade student would have a hard time distinguishing between "sharing" and teaching.
"We are looked up to and supposedly respected. What we are saying is very authoritative," said Talbox in his office yesterday, before taking a visitor on a tour of the school's holiday decorations. Reindeer pulled Santa Claus above the cafeteria tables. A decorated Christmas tree filled a corner. Classroom doors were covered with sesons greetings, including Happy Hanukah.
"We celebrate Christmas," siad Tarbox. "But I've tried to maintain a balance."
Tarbox said Denton overloaded the scales when he played a Christmas record for his class which included "Good Christian Men," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Earlier, said Talbox, he had to prevent Denton from reading a book dealing with the life of Christ to his class. He also warned him not to disparage the theory of evolution after four parents wrote to complain.
"They are teaching evolution as an actual fact," said Denton, who once turned off a class film about Africa when a celluloid anthropologist began tracing human ancestry back to apes. "I feel it's very important to express the two views of evolution.I've got nothing but flack from that."
At the beginning of the school year, Denton and Tarbox clashed over a two-minute period for "silent prayer and meditation" Denton was scheduling for his class.
"He was telling the students they should pray," said Tarbox. Denton denies the allegation. He says he told the students who did not wish to pray to just rest.
The most emotional disagreement between Tarbox and Denton occurred, both admit, over the school's Halloween party. Denton's class did not dress in costumes and were not allowed to watch a parade of other students who did.
"We happened to be watching a movie at the time,' said Denton.
"That was no accident," answered Tarbox.
At a Fairfax School Board meeting in November, Denton criticized the school system for allowing Halloween observances in school.
"I have seen elementary school girls portraying ladies of the evening . . . and elementary boys dressed up as murderers, warlocks and transvestities," complained Denton, who grew up in a small North Carolina town, attended Christian schools and did not taste beer until he was in college.
"I did my student teaching in the mountains of North Carolina. The kind of students I had were just ideal," said Denton. "I did not know what I was getting myself into coming to this county."
Denton said the Supreme Court decision banning religion from public schools created "chaos." "When God and prayer were taken out of our schools, the entire moral fiber was taken out. They [students] have got enough education. They need to get down to moral ethics . . . the reason the Pilgrims came over."
Joseph King, the Fairfax superintendent for Area Two, which includes Annandale Terrace, said this week, "We don't have any indications that the level of morality is decreasing."
King said he has not encountered another teacher with such religious fervor in his 12 years of administrative work.
"We do not permit any effort at preaching or conversion in the schools. It seems to me if a person wants that as part of his or her classroom activity, they might very well serve in a religious school where that is not only permitted but required and rewarded."