As the holidays approach, school officials may find themselves preparing for snow days, winter vacation, and of course, the issue of religious expression in public schools.
Every year, the holiday season brings a flurry of questions about what is allowed under the law regarding holiday displays and programs. While teaching about religious holidays is permitted as part of an educational program, celebrating religious holidays is not.
Below, we look at what the courts have said on this subject and offer some guidance on holiday lessons, religious music, and other areas of concern.
What the Courts Have Said
The U.S. Supreme Court has generally held that public schools are allowed to teach about religion but may not sponsor religious practices. However, the Supreme Court has yet to issue a definitive ruling on religious holidays in schools. In 1980, it opted not to review a decision in which a federal court concluded that the recognition of holidays in public schools is constitutional — only if the purpose is to educate about religious traditions and not promote the practice of the religion.
The Supreme Court has also ruled that a government entity may not display a religious symbol like a menorah or a nativity scene unless it is part of a larger, nonreligious holiday presentation.
In light of the above, public school teachers should know the difference between teaching about religious holidays and celebrating them. Religious symbols should only be used as teaching aids and displayed temporarily as part of an instructional program.
Teachers should ask themselves whether a holiday lesson or activity has an educational purpose and is balanced and fair. For example, if a teacher has a lesson about Christmas, they should also teach about non-Christian holidays. Lessons should never promote one religion over another or promote religion in general.
Similarly, art, literature, and drama with religious themes are allowed for educational purposes.
Some educators may believe they can promote Christianity at Christmas if they give similar treatment to other religions throughout the school year. This is false and can land a school in legal hot water.
Schools should allow students to be excused from classroom discussions or activities related to certain holidays. However, teachers should refrain from using a policy of excusing students from a holiday lesson as a basis for allowing a religious celebration for the remaining students.
Further, schools should never punish a student for missing school to observe a religious holiday.
What About Religious Music?
Students can sing or play religious music as part of a study of music. School concerts should present different types of music and may include religious selections. Concerts with a heavy emphasis on religious music should be avoided, especially when they occur at the same time as a religious holiday.
With that said, concerts in December may include Christmas and Hanukkah music, but religious music should not dominate.
Bottom Line for Schools
School officials who find themselves walking a tightrope this time of year can take comfort in the fact that there are actions they can take ahead of time to stay out of legal trouble:
• Develop policies about religious holidays in the educational curricula and notify parents about them.
• Provide workshops to help teachers understand the dos and don’ts of teaching about religion and religious holidays in the classroom.
• Before planning a holiday activity, check that it does not promote religion and serves the school’s educational mission. If the activity is in December, consider whether you plan similar events at other times of the year.
Your school district’s solicitor should review any policies related to religious holidays and check that they comply with the law.
School Law Bullets are a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions about holiday programs or other legal matters in your school, please contact your solicitor or an education attorney at KingSpry.