How to Survive the Holidays without Violating the Establishment Clause

The winter holiday season poses challenges to school officials seeking to recognize holidays without infringing upon the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled specifically on religious holiday celebra­tions in public schools, there are a number of other decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts that provide guidance to school officials about handling religious holidays consistent with the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has held that public schools may not sponsor religious practices, such as prayer or devotional Bible reading. In Lemon v Kurtzman, the Supreme Court established a three-part test for determining when governmental activity complies with the Establishment Clause:

  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.

While public schools may not sponsor religious celebrations or devotions, not all aspects of religious holidays are banned from schools. Instead, school officials should distinguish between teaching about religious holidays and celebrating religious holidays.

It is important that the purpose involved in recognizing a religious holiday at school is educational. School officials should focus on information about the origins, histories, and generally-agreed upon meanings of religious holidays, including how and when they are celebrated. School officials must not promote or denigrate any particular religion or holiday. For example, a teach­er must not proselytize or subject students to the teacher’s personal religious beliefs.

School officials should diversify the holidays that are recognized and discussed at school. Any instruction should expand beyond Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, school officials could include instruction about the origin, history, and cultural practices surrounding the Chinese New Year, Kwanzaa and the winter solstice. Further, school officials could recognize various religious holidays throughout the year. For example, school officials could provide instruction about the origin, history, and cultural practices of Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Navratri, Diwali, and Festivus.

Religious decorations or symbols may be used as teaching aids or resources but should be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic program.  Schools should be especially careful when it comes to certain displays used around the Christmas holiday. For example, a nativity scene should be used only as a teaching aid and not as a decoration. The purpose of the display must be educational, not to promote or celebrate the religious activity.

School choirs may include religious music in their holiday concerts but should provide a variety of music that balances religious music with non-religious music.  For example, a holiday concert in December could include music that is related to Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, but should also include non-religious tunes as well (just avoid “Baby It’s Cold Outside”).

Finally, school officials should carefully consider students’ and parents’ requests to be excused from activities related to particular holidays. Such requests are likely to be more common in the elementary grades, where holidays are often recognized with a classroom party or other non-academic activities. When granting such requests, it is important not to ostracize the student who is opting out of the activity. It is also important not to utilize the absence of those students who have opted out as a license to turn the educational purpose of the activity into a religious celebration for the remaining students.

By keeping in mind these three questions, school officials can manage the holiday stress:

  • What is the educational purpose for this holiday activity?
  • Will this holiday activity promote or inhibit religion in any way?
  • Will this holiday activity likely make any student or parent feel unwelcome at school?

Even if you have a legitimate educational pur­pose, it is important to neither promote nor inhibit religion and to make everyone feel welcome. By doing so, you may have a happy holiday activity.