Christmas wars in schools: The First Amendment solution

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Now that the midterm elections are finally over, parents and school officials can turn their attention to the battle that really counts: The December “holiday” (aka “Christmas”) program at their local school.

If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t been in a community divided by the December dilemma. Nowhere are the Christmas fights more explosive — and nowhere do people feel the stakes are higher — than in public schools.

Schools, of course, are only one battleground in what some religious conservatives have dubbed the “war on Christmas.” Is it my imagination, or is the fight starting earlier each year? Even before the pumpkins are smashed, Christmas-bashing begins.

In August — that’s right, August — the American Family Association attacked Sam’s Club for using “holidays” instead of “Christmas” in the August/September issue of its in-house magazine. If Sam’s Club doesn’t clean up its act, AFA wants Christians to shop elsewhere this year.

Comedians like Steve Colbert are having a field day with the “Merry Christmas” crusade. But public school officials aren’t laughing. Culture-war battles like this spill over into schools, turning the December assembly into a high-stakes contest that stirs deep emotions.

Unlike the naming of the Sam’s Club tree, what public schools do in December actually matters. For many people on all sides, the argument isn’t really about Christmas songs or Nativity pageants — it’s about who gets to decide what kind of society we are. Schools, after all, are where we define who we are as a nation.

The depth of the divide is illustrated by two requests for help I received last week. The first was from an elementary-school principal struggling to figure out if her school’s plans for the December program would pass constitutional muster. The proposed script includes a skit about Santa Claus that ends with a Nativity re-enactment during the singing of “Silent Night.”

The second was from a parent in another town who is upset because all mention of Christmas has been banned in her child’s school. It seems that school officials in her district have decided that the best way to deal with Christmas is to pretend it isn’t happening.

Both approaches are wrongheaded and divisive. Both violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment.

In the first case, the constitutional line is crossed when the public school auditorium is turned into a church. Of course, school programs in December should include sacred music about holy days such as Christmas and Hanukkah. But religious music shouldn’t dominate. And re-enactments of sacred moments in religious traditions, whether the Nativity or the Hanukkah miracle, belong in places of worship, not in public schools.

The Santa skit is a separate question, because cultural Christmas — Santa Claus, trees and the like — is probably not a constitutional issue. Although many Christians and non-Christians see the Christmas tree as sending a religious message, the courts are likely to treat it as a secular symbol.

But how the courts might view the tree or Santa isn’t a license to fill schools with cultural Christmas decorations and programs. After all, many kids (including some devout Christians) don’t celebrate the shopping-mall Christmas — and schools shouldn’t assume that they do. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

Ignoring Christmas isn’t the answer, either. The First Amendment shouldn’t be misapplied to keep all references to religion out of public schools. When school officials ban Christmas, they fuel the very fights they are trying to avoid.

The constitutional bottom line is stunningly simple: The school’s approach to religious holidays must be academic, not devotional. The job of public schools is to educate students about religious holidays — not just in December, but throughout the year. That means schools should plan assembly programs that teach kids about a variety of religions and cultures, without making anyone feel like an outsider in his or her own school.

Done right, the First Amendment solution should satisfy most people. Christians will appreciate that students are learning something about what Christians actually believe. And people of other faiths and of no faith can support an academic approach to study about religions, including Christianity, as long as it is done in ways that are educationally sound and respectful of their own beliefs.

Unfortunately, getting it right takes work. Many districts would rather risk a fight than do what it takes to get the community behind the First Amendment. There’s nothing “merry” about that — unless, of course, you’re a lawyer.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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