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First Five Express: Celebrating Spring’s Religious Holidays and the First Amendment

This video column expresses the views of Benjamin P. Marcus, fellow for religious freedom, Freedom Forum.

In a religiously diverse country, how do we make people of all religions and none feel like equal members of our community?

In the coming weeks, many religious communities are preparing for major holidays. This month, members of the Baha’i community prepared for Naw-Ruz, Jews prepare for Passover and Hindus prepare for Holi. Christians will celebrate Easter in April, and that same month, Sikhs will celebrate Vaisakhi and Muslims will welcome the season of Ramadan. For my part, I can’t wait to celebrate Easter with my mom’s side of the family over Zoom and have a Passover Seder with my dad’s side, too.

For many members of our community, this is a joyous time — but the season brings a number of challenges for schools, workplaces and communities. How should schools teach students about the holidays celebrated by students and their families? To what extent should workplaces accommodate the requests of employees who want time off to celebrate? How should our religious and civic leaders mark these important events?

At the Freedom Forum, these questions remind us that this season of religious celebration is also a season to celebrate the First Amendment. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment safeguards the right of people of all religions and none to celebrate or abstain from celebrating these holidays. The Establishment Clause provides protections by ensuring that the government — and, by extension, public schools — don’t favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.

There’s much we can do to make sure the spirit of the First Amendment stays alive in our communities during this holiday season.

In our public schools, we can teach about these various holidays so that students understand the diverse ways people celebrate, the ways celebrations have changed over time and the ways celebrations are embedded in culture. Remember, schools should teach about religion academically, but they should not teach religion devotionally.

In our workplaces, we can provide reasonable accommodations to employees who want time off to celebrate with their families or who want to adjust their schedules to accommodate fasts. Remember, not everyone in the workplace celebrates the same holidays — or celebrates at all. Now is the time, before the holidays begin, to have a conversation with your employees about how best to make everyone feel like a valued member of the team.

In our communities, we can educate one another about our traditions, or why we do not celebrate. We can remind our elected officials that people of all religions and none are equal members of our community.

To learn more First Amendment tips and tools for protecting religious free exercise while upholding non-establishment principles, check out the Freedom Forum’s free lesson plans and a pamphlet on instruction around religious holidays, along with workplace training in religious diversity and inclusion and other resources.

Benjamin P. Marcus is a Freedom Forum fellow for religious freedom. 

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