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How to Handle Religious Holidays in Public Schools

First Amendment Center


How to Handle Religious Holidays in Public SchoolsSince 1776 the United States has grown from a nation of relatively few religious differences to one of countless religious groups. This expanding pluralism challenges the public schools to deal creatively and sensitively with students professing many religions and none.


The following questions and answers concern religious holidays and public education, a subject often marked by confusion and conflict. Teachers and school officials, as well as parents and students, should approach this discussion as an opportunity to work cooperatively for the sake of good education rather than at cross purposes.


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Questions & Answers: Religious Holidays in the Public Schools


What do the courts say?

The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious practices (Engel v. Vitale, 1962; Abington v. Schempp, 1963) but may teach about religion. While it has made no definitive ruling on religious holidays in the schools, the Supreme Court has let stand a lower federal court decision stating that recognition of holidays may be constitutional if the purpose is to provide secular instruction about religious traditions rather than to promote the particular religion involved (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 8th Cir., 1980).


Do religious holidays belong in the curriculum?

The study of religious holidays may be included in elementary and secondary curricula as opportunities for teaching about religions. Such study serves the academic goals of educating students about history and cultures as well as about the traditions of particular religions in a pluralistic society.


When should teaching about religious holidays take place?

On the elementary level, natural opportunities arise for discussion of religious holidays while studying different cultures and communities. In the secondary curriculum, students of world history or literature have opportunities to consider the holy days of religious traditions. Teachers find it helpful when they are provided with an inclusive calendar noting major religious and secular holidays with brief descriptions of their significance.


How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom?

Teachers must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not. Recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings. If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief. Teachers will want to avoid asking students to explain their beliefs and customs. An offer to do so should be treated with courtesy and accepted or rejected depending on the educational relevancy. Teachers may not use the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to proselytize or to inject personal religious beliefs into the discussion. Teachers should avoid this by teaching through attribution, i.e. by reporting that “some Buddhists believe .…”


May religious symbols be used in public school classes?

Provided they are used only as examples of cultural or religious heritage, religious symbols are permissible to use as teaching aids or resources. Religious symbols may be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic program. Students may choose to create artwork with religious symbols, but teachers should not assign or suggest such creations.


May religious music be used in public schools?

Sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music. Concerts dominated by religious music, especially when they coincide with a particular religious holiday, should be avoided. The use of art, drama or literature with religious themes also is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum, but not if used as a vehicle for promoting religious belief.


How to Handle Religious Holidays in Public SchoolsWhat about Christmas?

Decisions about what to do in December should begin with the understanding that public schools may not sponsor religious devotions or celebrations; study about religious holidays does not extend to religious worship or practice. Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools? Probably not, and in any event, such an effort would be unrealistic. The resolution would seem to lie in devising holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students—programs that do not make students feel excluded or identified with a religion not their own. Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music related to Christmas and Hanukkah, but religious music should not dominate.


Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate in the public school setting. In short, while they may recognize the holiday season, none of December’s school activities should have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.


What about religious objections to some holidays?

Students from certain religious traditions may ask to be excused from classroom discussions or activities related to particular holidays. Some holidays considered by many people to be secular (for example, Halloween and Valentine’s Day) are viewed by others as having religious overtones. Excusal requests may be especially common in the elementary grades, where holidays often are marked by parties and similar non-academic activities. Such requests are routinely granted.

In addition, some parents and students may make requests for excusals from discussions of certain holidays, even when these holidays are treated from an academic perspective. If focused on limited, specific discussions, such requests may be granted in order to strike a balance between the student’s religious freedom and the school’s interest in providing a well-rounded education. Administrators and teachers should understand that a policy or practice of excusing students from specific activities or discussions cannot be used as a rationale for school sponsorship of religious celebration or worship for the remaining students.


May students be absent for religious holidays?

Sensitive school policy on absences will take account of the religious needs and requirements of students. Students should be allowed a reasonable number of excused absences, without penalties, to observe religious holidays within their traditions. Students may be asked to complete makeup assignments or examinations in conjunction with such absences.


What steps should school districts take?

In a pluralistic society, public schools are places for persons of all faiths and none. Schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion. In order to respect religious liberty and advance education, we recommend that each school district take the following steps:

  1. *Develop policies about the treatment of religious holidays in the curricula and inform parents of those policies.

  2. *Offer pre-service and in-service workshops to assist teachers and administrators in understanding the appropriate place of religious holidays in the schools.

  3. *Become familiar with the nature and needs of the religious groups in the school community.

  4. *Provide resources for teaching about religions and religious holidays in ways that are constitutionally permissible and educationally sound.

Quick Tips for Planning Religious Holidays in Public Schools

Before planning a religious holiday activity in a public school, ask the following questions:

  • *Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?

  • *How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course, or the educational mission of the school?

  • *Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity?

  • *If in December: Do we plan activities to teach about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December?

  • *Are we prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students’ understanding of history and cultures?

How do you deal with holidays in your classroom? Share in the comments section!


This article is reprinted with permission of the First Amendment Center, whose original Religious Holidays in Public Schools guide was put together with contributions from First Amendment experts, religious groups and leading education organizations.


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