The school superintendent's order was final. Halloween was "prohibited" during school hours. Black cats, pointy hats and all images of witches could no longer be displayed in any of the 31 schools in this suburban city south of Seattle.

The first official reason: Halloween parties and costumes detract from the district's core mission of academic achievement in a competitive world.

The second official reason: "We have been contacted by followers of the Wiccan religion, and they indicated they have been offended after seeing elementary school depictions of witches with long noses, warts, cauldrons and such," said Tony Apostle, the superintendent who banned Halloween.

When Apostle's order was issued two weeks ago, parents alerted the media and howled about political correctness. "What is next? Santa?" many asked.

They packed a school board meeting last week, where children waved signs ("Ghosts and Goblins Have Rights, Too") and parents jeered the superintendent, along with the school board that supported his Halloween edict.

"It is unusual for Puyallup to make the national news," said Bebe Colley, who approached a microphone at the meeting with her two golden-haired daughters, Madison, 7, and Emma, 4, dressed in matching lime-green Tinkerbell outfits. "We made it by being ridiculous."

The Puyallup Halloween uprising is not an isolated event. It is part of a contentious nationwide trend, as public school administrators, in the name of test-centered learning and multicultural sensitivity, attempt to abbreviate and homogenize classroom celebrations of Halloween, Christmas and Easter.

To prepare even kindergarten-age children for a career of standardized testing, in-school parties of all kinds -- along with naps, recess and field trips -- are being cut back or phased out in many schools across the country, according to Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association. He said the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which starts testing at third grade, has accelerated the trend.

To make public schools more sensitive to the needs of a nation with 2,000 religions and 20 million nonbelievers, harvest festivals are replacing Halloween and winter celebrations are cutting into Christmas parties, according to Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"Every year there are battles about this stuff, as autumn leaves replace witches' broomsticks and snowflakes replace Christmas trees," Lynn said.

Lynn said his organization gets angry calls around Halloween from pagans disturbed by public schools displaying images of witches with ugly noses, as well as from fundamentalist Christian parents who object that Halloween is promoting non-Christian faith.

Complaints about Halloween from Pentecostal parents in Texas have forced a significant number of that state's school districts to cancel in-school parties, said Richard W. Stadelmann, a professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University.

There is a geographical pattern to the grumbling, according to Stadelmann and others. Christian complaints come mostly from the South and Midwest, whereas Wiccan complaints are more likely to come from California and the Pacific Northwest.

Much of this complaining from pagans and Christians is unwarranted by the facts, according to Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director of People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal organization that often goes to court to defend separation of church and state.

"Looking at Halloween from the perspective of a reasonable parent, Halloween is not a religious celebration, it is secular enjoyment, candies and dressing up," she said. "It is not something that schools need to ban."

Puyallup Superintendent Apostle respectfully disagrees. He said that while he personally enjoys Halloween -- his home has pumpkins, and he plans to takes his two daughters trick-or-treating -- the educational demands and religious sensitivities of modern America make his ban necessary.

"Things are not like they used to be," Apostle said. "We have reached a time in our society when activities that make some children uncomfortable -- that exclude some children because of faith, values or culture -- need to be scheduled outside the school day."

The border between sensitivity and silliness, however, is not clearly delineated. There were many in the Seattle area (not just Puyallup parents) who argued that Apostle had gone way over the border.

"Halloween is, like, about fun, dude," wrote Robert L. Jamieson Jr., a columnist in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

At the noisy school board meeting, fun was steamrolled by outrage.

"Did you guys forget what it was like to be a little kid?" asked Katie McCoy, who has two children in elementary school.

One mother approached the lectern with her grown-up daughter, who she said was soon to be sent as a soldier to Iraq. The mother said her daughter, a graduate of Puyallup schools, would be defending a free society that deserved Halloween parties in public schools.

Another mother asked why, if educators were so keen on student test scores, did they cancel classes several times a year for teacher meetings and school fundraisers.

Perhaps the most startling statement -- one that garnered applause and cheering -- came from Larry Klingele, who said he was a follower of the Wiccan religion and a board member of the nearby Tacoma Earth Religions Revival Association.

Announcing that he spoke for hundreds of pagans in the greater Seattle area, Klingele said he is "not offended" by little girls who dress up as witches, go to school parties and squeal to one another, in the famous "Wizard of Oz" line from the Wicked Witch of the West, "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"

Klingele, who installs security systems in homes and office buildings, said the school district's Halloween policy, and the firestorm of media attention it has aroused, was harmful to Wiccans.

"This decision perpetuates intolerance and misunderstanding," Klingele said. "Please reconsider and we are not offended."

The superintendent and the board, however, declined to revise their policy. On Friday, schools in Puyallup allowed no Halloween parties. Instead, teachers invited many elementary school students to wear pajamas to a harvest celebration during school hours.

Bebe Colley with her daughters Madison, 7, and Emma, 4, told the school board that its ban on Halloween had put Puyallup on the national news for being "ridiculous."At a school board meeting in Puyallup, Wash., students pack a cafeteria to protest the board's ban of Halloween costumes.