Schools and Religious Holidays - How Can Schools Recognize Holidays?

Balancing Observance of Religious Holidays with Church/State Separation

Traditionally, public schools in America have been very explicit in their celebration of the holiday season — for students, it was a Christmas holiday season, a Christmas break, and celebratory events were specifically oriented towards Christmas. So long as America has been predominantly Christian in composition, such a focus went unchallenged and even unnoticed by the majority.

But the times are changing, and the assumptions of the past are no longer adequate to the reality of the present.

Curiously, however, schools are largely changing not because they are forced to do so by the courts. Quite the contrary, the courts have regularly ruled that many traditional aspects of how schools recognize Christmas are entirely constitutional. Where schools change, it is because they themselves recognize that any holiday celebrations which focus on one religious tradition are unacceptable in a community where many religious traditions are expected to exist under equal terms.

School Closings
The most obvious evidence of school attempts to accommodate people’s religious beliefs and the one thing which is sure to affect everyone involved, regardless of their religious beliefs, is the decision to simply close a school during a religious holiday. Traditionally, this has only occurred around Christmas, but that is starting to change.

Holiday Programs
Aside from closing entirely, schools have also celebrated religious holidays by holding special programs — these can take the form of special classes which teach about the holiday, plays and musicals related to the holiday, and (most commonly) musical programs.

There are few public schools in America which have not had Christmas holiday programs involving the school band and school choir performing Christmas music for the community (or at least the student body).

Court Cases
Summaries and backgrounds on several court cases that have addressed the degree to which public schools can recognize or participate in religious holidays.

How far can a public school go when including religious symbols in school functions? Is it a violation of the separation of church and state to make students sing Christian songs in a public school choir?

« Church, State, and Religious Holidays | School Closings »

The most obvious evidence of school attempts to accommodate people’s religious beliefs and the one thing which is sure to affect everyone involved, regardless of their religious beliefs, is the decision to simply close a school during a religious holiday. Traditionally, this has only occurred around Christmas, but that is starting to change.

 

Tradition of Christian Privilege

The question of closing school is a difficult dilemma for school administrators: if they keep schools open, they risk being portrayed as insensitive to the minority religious faiths in their community; but if they close the schools, they risk being portrayed as trying to show favoritism.

This, of course, is a consequence of the tradition of always closing for Christmas — if schools never closed for any religious holiday, there could be no charges of favoritism and little basis for the allegation of any particular insensitivity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that schools can simply refuse to close on holidays like Christmas. The fact of the matter is, when there are enough followers of a particular religion in a community, you can be sure that on major holidays there will be a high degree of absenteeism in the schools.

It might be reasonably argued that schools would be showing hostility towards religion if they didn’t try help students make up for missed work, but it can be easier for schools to simply close and keep everyone at the same stage of instruction. This has been the reason given by school districts when their closing policies have been challenged and the courts have thus far accepted it as a fair and reasonable argument.

School closings for major religious holidays have been found constitutional.

 

Equal Treatment for All Religions

Just because it's constitutional for schools to close on the holidays of popular religions does not mean that it is wise. As minority religious groups grow in size, self-confidence, and social power, they have begun to demand equal treatment; for school districts, this means that they cannot close for Christian and Jewish holidays without risking that members of other religions will complain about it.

Schools can counter that without enough absenteeism, closings aren’t warranted — but as even Jewish leaders have pointed out, the disparate treatment means that students of minority faiths are made to feel like outsiders. This is just the sort of thing which the First Amendment is supposed to prevent the government from causing.

The only solution would seem to be fully equal treatment — either strict separation and no closings for any religion, or complete accommodation and closings for every religion. Neither option is likely to be taken by schools; the former would infuriate Christian majorities and the latter is a logistical nightmare. The consequence will be increased conflict among religious groups as minority faiths grow less and less accepting of the preferences and privileges accorded to Jewish and Christian beliefs.

« Schools & Religious Holidays | Holiday Programs »

Aside from closing entirely, schools have also celebrated religious holidays by holding special programs — these can take the form of special classes which teach about the holiday, plays and musicals related to the holiday, and (most commonly) musical programs. There are few public schools in America which have not had Christmas holiday programs involving the school band and school choir performing Christmas music for the community (or at least the student body).

Unfortunately, such Christmas music is heavily Christian in nature — something which can make members of other faiths feel excluded and even like second-class citizens. This does not mean, however, that such programs are unconstitutional — in fact, just about everything associated with such programs is completely constitutional according to court decisions over the past two decades.

 

What Public Schools Can Do

Can schools continue to refer to the holidays breaks and programs by their religious titles, like Christmas and Easter? Absolutely — there is no requirement to rename them to titles like Winter Break or Spring Break. Can schools display holiday-themed religious symbols during the holiday season? Absolutely — but only so long as the display of those symbols is part of some legitimate instructional plan by the school. The display of the symbols for the purpose of endorsement, favoritism or proselytization is, of course, excluded.

Can schools hold holiday programs which include the singing of explicitly religious songs and the use of explicitly religious themes, for example singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” in front of a nativity display? Once again, the answer is “Yes” — but also once again, only if part of an educational curriculum which is designed to explain to students the religious and cultural heritage of the date in a “prudent and objective manner” (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District).

Usually courts will look at musical programs in the same way that they look at religious displays — thus, the existence of a secular component (like “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” alongside “Silent Night”) helps ensure that the program is legitimate.

 

Secularizing School Holidays

So, is this what public schools do? For the most part, it is — but it is also weakening every year, and the religious overtones of traditionally religious holiday observances are fading. Administrators have grown wary of doing anything which might violate the separation of church and state — and more importantly, of anything which might arouse the ire of religious minorities in the community.

Christmas and Easter closings are commonly referred to simply as Winter and Spring breaks. Fewer and fewer religious songs are being sung during ostensibly Christmas holiday programs — and sometimes, even the Christmas title is being dropped in favor of something more generic, like Winter Holiday Program. Christmas Trees are called Giving Trees and Christmas Parties are called Holiday Parties.

Those who are uncomfortable with dropping too much of the traditional Christian content try to strike a balance by including content from other religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam.

The result is still a weakening of the overtly sectarian character of these observances — something which angers conservative Christians but which is generally welcome by other religious communities.

« School Closings | Court Cases »

Summaries and backgrounds on several court cases that have addressed the degree to which public schools can recognize or participate in religious holidays.

Florey v. Sioux Falls School District (1980)
Roger Florey, an atheist, filed suit against a local school district's holiday programs, claiming that singing of religious carols during Christmas concerts, like "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful", were a violation of the separation of church and state.

(1993)
How far can a public school go when including religious symbols in school functions? According to a New Jersey District Court, any religious symbols can be used, but only so long as they are part of a legitimate, secular education program.

(1997)
Is it a violation of the separation of church and state to make students sing Christian songs in a public school choir? According to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, it isn't a violation — not even if the teacher involved uses his position to promote his religion.

(2000)
Jarrod Sechler, a "youth pastor" at a local Christian church, filed suit against the State College Area High School because their holiday program was insufficiently Christian for him. According to a U.S. District Court, the presence of non-Christian symbols did not advance either those religions or express hostility towards Christianity.

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