Every December, public school students, parents, teachers and administrators face the difficult task of acknowledging the various religious and secular holiday traditions celebrated during that time of year. Teachers, administrators and parents should try to promote greater understanding and tolerance among students of different traditions by taking care to adhere to the requirements of the First Amendment
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans — including young schoolchildren — by prohibiting the government from endorsing or promoting any particular religious point of view. This prohibition has led courts to ban such plainly coercive religious activities in public schools as organized prayer and the teaching of creationism. The law is less clear regarding the limits on holiday celebrations in public schools, but a number of guidelines should be followed in order to ensure that our public schools can best celebrate the religious freedom upon which our nation was founded.
Religion as an Educational Lesson
While there are appropriate educational benefits to teaching about the diverse religious traditions and cultures of our country, school officials must be sure they do not give students the impression that one set of holidays or beliefs is more important or more acceptable than others.
Courts have stressed that “[r]eligion is a pervasive and enduring human phenomenon which is an appropriate, if not desirable, subject of secular study.” In fact, “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
However, there is a critical difference between practicing religion and teaching about religion. Most importantly, it is constitutionally permissible for public schools to teach about religion but unconstitutional for public schools to observe religious holidays or practice religion. School officials and parents must be careful not to cross the line between “the laudable educational goal of promoting a student’s knowledge of and appreciation for this nation’s cultural and religious diversity, and the impermissible endorsement of religion forbidden by the Establishment Clause.”
The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on issues related to teaching about religious holidays in public schools, but its rulings in other cases involving religious freedom and lower court rulings about religious holidays in public schools are instructive regarding which activities are permissible or impermissible.
The Supreme Court has said that religion may only be studied when it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” Such study must have a distinctly nonreligious purpose. For example, public school students in an English class may study passages from the Bible to better understand a work of literature that draws on Biblical sources. A course on American or European history might also include an in-depth study of the role of religion in shaping important historical events. It is important to remember that, in any context, the study of religion must not be coercive and must neither promote nor be hostile towards religion.
It is often appropriate to teach about the historical, contemporary and cultural aspects of religious holidays. From these lessons, young children often gain understanding and respect for the diverse cultures and beliefs in our country. Appropriate lessons about religious holidays could include discussions of the origins and meanings of holidays and how and when they are celebrated.
However, teachers should make sure not to cover a single holiday or religion, but instead to teach children about the holiday celebrations of a number of different traditions. For example, in any given year a number of holidays may occur in December – Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Bill of Rights Day, and Bodhi Day (a Buddhist celebration) – and may be appropriate for a lesson on various celebrations held in the winter season. In this context, it is permissible for teachers to display religious symbols, so long as they are used solely as a teaching aid and are displayed temporarily as part of an educational lesson.
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