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Public schools and Christmas: the season wrapped in red tape

By The Associated Press

12.21.01

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ALBANY, N.Y. — This time of year in public schools, you can feel the holiday cheer. There's talk of presents under the conifer tree, people wishing each other a merry Dec. 25, and, as one court ruling puts it, other traditions adhering to content-neutral policies of general applicability.

The perennial struggle by public schools with religious-based holiday observances has surfaced this year in the Canandaigua Primary School near Rochester.

There, Christmas wreaths and two Christmas trees decorate the hallways amid displays for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. (Ramadan is discussed in class). But a note sent home to parents to bring items for a class Christmas party sparked complaints by two parents who don't celebrate Christmas.

It would be a gift wrapped in red tape: "It has been brought to our attention by concerned individuals in the community and in our school that the word 'Christmas' is being used in relation to the season," stated a memo from Principal Cheryl Eng-Link earlier this month. "Please be advised it is more appropriate for us to use words such as 'holiday,' 'evergreen tree,' etc. ... Let's make sure that information, events and even our choice of wording is secular in nature."

But that message drew a heated response from pro-Christmas parents in the community of 10,000.

So district Superintendent Stephen Uebbing promptly shot off another memo. The first item: "The use of the term Christmas has not and will not be banned in our school district."

The conflicts, seen as silly by some and as assaults on the First Amendment by others, have carved out a section in state Education Law as well as a sleigh full of court precedents over decades, say state Education Department officials. Yet the controversy over how Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan can be observed in public schools continues to have a longer shelf life than fruitcake.

"I think that the holiday issue is more an issue now than before the Supreme Court said you couldn't have prayer in public schools," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Manhattan.

She referred to the historic 1962 ruling, Engel v. Vitale, by the U.S. Supreme Court that found organized, school-sponsored prayer violates the separation of church and state. Before that, some public schools began the day with the Lord's Prayer, as in Lieberman's school. Today, she said, even music by Bach has been protested as an intrusion of religion in schools.

"It's a perennial issue and I think it's never going to go away," she said. "On the one hand ours is a society that protects and safeguards freedom of religion and on the other hand government cannot be involved in promoting religions ... or discriminating against religions," she said. "The answers are not always obvious."

It may be clearer in the classroom.

"Teachers work very hard to be inclusive and use phrases like 'holiday' ... and 'evergreen' instead of one religion over the other," said Carl Korn of the New York State United Teachers union. "Teachers are nurturers by training and instinct and they want to make sure their students are included so that nobody feels they are different because of their religion."

To do so, schools must rely on often complex legal passages.

For example, a 1980 federal court decision allows schools to "acknowledge" religious holidays if the programs include some educational or cultural purpose. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1989 case Allegheny County v. ACLU found that a Nativity scene inside a courthouse violated the Constitution, but that a large Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah with the message "Salute to Liberty" outside the courthouse did not. And the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lynch v. Donnelly found a Nativity scene displayed with Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, a clown, a teddy bear and other holiday items was fine.

"It comes up every year somewhere," said Barbara Bradley of the New York School Boards Association. "There will always be school districts around the state and the country that have to deal with it. ... There will always be challenges to it, whether you agree or disagree with the school's use or lack of use of holiday symbols."

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

How to handle religious holidays in public schools
By Charles Haynes Upholding the First Amendment is key to solving the yearly 'December dilemma.'  12.09.01

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