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How to handle religious holidays in public schools

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles Haynes
Senior scholar, First Amendment Center

12.09.01

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Should we put a minaret next to the crèche and menorah in the school lobby? Is it OK to have a manger scene in the classroom if we surround it with Santa and reindeer? How many religious songs can we sing during the holiday assembly?

Yes, it’s that jolly time of year again. And judging from the calls I’m getting, some folks are taking the president’s call to “get back to normal” much too literally.

Sad to say, arguing about religious holidays in public schools and in the public square is all too “normal” for many schools and communities in December.

Fighting over Christmas isn’t the best way to celebrate the season of “peace and good will” – and it can get messy. But let’s keep our conflicts in perspective. No matter how difficult these battles are, let’s be grateful if this is all we have to fight about.

While we debate about whether or not to have a Nativity Pageant at the school assembly, thousands of innocent people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – are caught in the crossfire of terror and war in the Land of Abraham.

Bethlehem is more likely to see more bombs than pilgrims this Christmas season.

In a world torn by sectarian conflict, it’s a real holiday miracle (Christmas, Hanukkah or Ramadan) that Americans of many faiths – and those of no faith – manage to live with one another as citizens of one nation. When we differ, it may end in a lawsuit – but it doesn’t become a holy war.

But before we congratulate ourselves too much, let’s not take our good fortune for granted. Little fights about religious symbols can embitter communities and widen the divide between people of various faiths or no faith.

So what should schools do to get beyond the “December dilemma?” The short answer can be summed up in four words: Uphold the First Amendment.

What does it mean for school officials to uphold the First Amendment? It’s simple really. Educate the kids and treat people of all faiths or none with fairness and respect.

Education is, after all, what public schools are supposed to be doing. Devotional celebrations belong in places of worship and homes – not in the public schools. The job of schools is to teach about religion – including religious holidays – in ways that serve the academic goal of educating students about history and society.

Does this mean that all holiday activities should be banned from public schools? No, of course not. But holiday programs should serve an educational purpose – and they shouldn’t make any students feel excluded or identified with a religion not their own. Holiday concerts, for example, may appropriately include religious music related to Christmas, Hanukkah or other holidays that fall in December. But sacred music shouldn’t dominate the program. And the school auditorium shouldn’t be turned into the local church.

What about religious symbols? Here again, education is the key. Religious symbols such as crèches and menorahs may be used in classrooms as teaching aids and displayed temporarily as part of the lesson on a particular religious tradition.

It’s important to note that this advice about symbols in the classroom doesn’t address what I call the “shopping mall Christmas.” Generally, courts view Santa Claus and Christmas trees as secular in nature. But keep in mind that many people still view these symbols as coming from a religious tradition. So while it may be constitutional to put up trees and Santas everywhere in the school, it might not be the right or sensitive thing to do.

If upholding the First Amendment means teaching about religions, which religions should be studied? After all, America is home to hundreds of different faiths. How can schools be fair to all?

Fairness under the First Amendment doesn’t mean equal time (which would be a practical impossibility anyway). Fairness means making decisions about which religions to include and how much to discuss based on the educational needs of the students.

In the elementary grades, for example, a good education would properly include introducing the basic ideas and practices of the world’s major religions as part of the study of family, community, various cultures, and the nation. The academic content of the course, not the personal preference of the teacher or school board, must determine which religions are studied.

Although fairness in the curriculum can’t mean “equal time” for everyone, it does require that schools educate students about a variety of religious holidays – not just in December, but at other times of the year, as well.

Negotiating religious differences isn’t easy. Just glance at the morning headlines in your newspaper. But thanks to the First Amendment, Americans have ground rules that work. And the most important place to model how the ground rules work is the public school – the institution most responsible for building one nation out of many peoples and faiths.

Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to:
Charles Haynes
The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center
1101 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22209

E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org

Related

NYC schools ban Nativity scenes but allow Jewish, Islamic symbols
Education department contends Hanukkah menorahs, Muslim star and crescent are not religious in nature.  12.11.02

Public schools and Christmas: the season wrapped in red tape
Principal's memo stating that 'secular' language should be used when referring to the season renews perennial debate about religious holidays, public schools.  12.21.01

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