By Blake Sonne, POE General Counsel
Every year, we field calls and questions about what activities related to Christmas are allowable in public schools and in the classroom. At this time of year, there are many debates and even some constitutional challenges that take place all over America concerning the proper role played by Christmas and other religious holidays in public schools. Some school districts become overly cautious about potential legal challenges causing districts to prevent teachers and administrators from teaching about religious holidays, even in an appropriate manner.
The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed similar constitutional issues in several cases over the last 60 years. These cases conclude that although school districts cannot promote religion in public school, it is entirely proper to teach about religion and religious holidays. To put the legal principle simply, public schools “may neither promote nor inhibit religious belief or non-belief.” Moreover, the standard is such that a reasonable observer should agree that the content does not endorse a particular religion or non-religion. This means that teachers should engage in policies and a curriculum that balances a shared respect for individual religious beliefs with a recognition of the important role of religion in history and culture. In sum, just as the promotion of religion should be avoided, so should refraining from all references to religion be likewise avoided.
Here are some reminders and examples of some authorized activities in public schools during the Christmas and Holiday season:
- Music, art, literature and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.
- In essence, there is a difference between participating in the holiday in a devotional manner and recognizing the holiday in an engaging and enjoyable academic manner.
- Holidays can be excellent educational opportunities. Include information on why they are celebrated, the origins, historical background, and how they are celebrated.
- Various religious symbols can be proper teaching aids to illustrate the cultural lesson of religion. However, religious symbols should be used on a temporary basis as part of the academic process rather than a permanent part of the classroom.
- Students may sing Christmas carols as an educational experience, not as a devotional experience.
- Teachers may read the story of the birth of Jesus to students, so they understand this event which has inspired so much music, art, and literature in the world.
- Be objective and sensitive to students’ creation of religious artwork, reports, etc. on school projects and assignments.
- If student discussion deviates from the objective, academic curriculum related to the religion or religious holiday, it is important to keep the discussion from disrupting the lesson or interfering with the rights of others.
Again, be careful that you are not promoting or indoctrinating students about religion, but at the same time remember that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.” Certain programs and activities relating to religious holidays such as Christmas are indeed appropriate in public schools if they have the proper intent and purpose. School district policy should be consulted for further guidance on incorporating holidays into school curriculum. I hope this encourages you to take advantage of this great time of year and make the most of it for your students in the classroom!