Helpful Guidance for Happy Holidays

With the holidays fast approaching, our gift to school officials is guidance on how to acknowledge the holidays without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The only thing worse than coal in your stocking is a federal lawsuit!

Because public schools may not sponsor religious practices, such as prayer or devotional Bible readings, it is important that your school’s holiday celebrations have an educational purpose. This does not mean that all religious overtones must be removed from holiday celebrations in public schools. Rather, school officials should distinguish between teaching about religious holidays (which is permissible) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not).

The three-part test for determining when governmental activity complies with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides that:

  1. the activity must have a secular (non-religious) purpose;
  2. the principal or primary effect of the activity must not advance or inhibit religion; and
  3. the activity must not result in an excessive entanglement with religion.

To assist you in meeting this test, keep the following six factors in mind.

  1. The purpose of recognizing a religious holiday at school must be educational. Focus on infor­mation about the origin, history, and generally agreed-upon meaning of religious holidays.
  2. Consider diversity when recognizing holidays at school and include various religious holidays throughout the school year. For example, school officials could provide instruction about the origin, history, and cultural practices of Hanukkah, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Navratri, and Diwali, rather than lim­iting instruction to Christmas and Easter. This practice will underscore the social and secular purpose of the instruction.
  3. Do not promote or denigrate any particular religion or holiday. School personnel must avoid promoting a particular religious belief.
  4. Religious decorations and symbols should only be used as teaching aids or resources, being displayed on a temporary basis as part of the academic program. Be especially careful with displays during the Christmas holiday. For ex­ample, a nativity scene should be used only as a teaching aid, not as a decoration. The purpose of any display must be educational, not to pro­mote or celebrate the religious activity.
  5. Include other secular, non-religious symbols of the season as well during the instruction. For example, school music groups may perform re­ligious music during concerts provided that there is a variety of music that balances reli­gious music (and not just Christian music) with non-religious music.
  6. School officials must honor the requests of students and parents to be excused from activities related to holidays. When granting such requests, be careful not to ostracize the student opting out of the activity. Do not use the ability to opt out of such activities as a li­cense to turn the educational purpose of the activity into a religious celebration for the remaining students.

With any luck, we can get through the holidays with plenty of “cheer” and no “cease and desist” let­ters. Best wishes for a safe and secular holiday season.