Easter challenges schools to weigh religions, freedom

Sunday, April 4, 1999

Passing a church the other evening, I noticed a poster of a big, brown bunny on the front door. The caption read: “Easter is more than a fuzzy feeling.”

That's precisely the problem in public schools. Easter sparks controversy because it isn't just about bunnies and colored eggs — it's the commemoration of events at the heart of the Christian faith.

Two current controversies, both in California schools, illustrate the challenge teachers face when Easter arrives.

One conflict involves an elementary school south of Los Angeles where some parents are demanding an end to the annual Easter-egg hunt sponsored by the school. Even though most Christians don't see anything religious about eggs and bunnies, many non-Christians resent school celebrations of a “Christian holiday.”

The other fight is more serious. A Christian club in a high school near San Francisco decided to put on an Easter program during the lunch hour — with Jesus and without bunnies. It would be held outside near the flagpole and last for about 20 minutes. Most students would be eating lunch inside at that time, but anyone who might want to attend would be welcome. School officials have been reluctant to allow the program to take place.

To hunt or not to hunt

While the egg hunt may trigger an emotional debate, it's not a constitutional issue. The courts are unlikely to declare the Easter bunny or a basket of eggs evidence of “establishment of religion” in a public school.

Much like trees and wreaths in December, these symbols with their ancient pagan associations are now intertwined with a Christian religious celebration. But for First Amendment purposes, courts are likely to view all of the “shopping mall” trappings of the cultural Easter and Christmas as secular symbols.

That doesn't mean that decorating the school with bunnies in April and trees in December is the right thing to do. While such activities might be legal, it's not particularly fair or sensitive to assume that all kids can expect visits from the Easter bunny and Santa Claus.

When parents complain about the school egg hunt and similar “Easter” activities, school officials should listen to their concerns and, if possible, find a way to accommodate them. At the very least, the school should have an opt-out policy that allows students to be excused from activities that their parents find objectionable.

Another solution to the egg-hunt conflict might be to make the event a community-sponsored rather than school-sponsored activity, organized by parents and held after school for anyone who wants to participate.

Would this take the “fun” out of the school day? Not if teachers plan activities that allow kids to express through art and stories the various cultural and religious holidays that are meaningful in their lives.

Moreover, many Christian parents also object to overemphasis on the cultural Easter. They too would prefer that schools teach something about the important religious holidays at various times of year — Passover, Easter, Christmas, Ramadan, etc. — rather than have their own faith reduced to eggs, bunnies and trees.

Jesus on the high school lawn

If public-school officials promote religion, that's a First Amendment issue. But is an Easter program by students near the flagpole an example of “school-sponsored” religion? I don't think so.

No one would be forced to attend. School officials wouldn't be involved. And the program would be during lunch when students have free time.

There's no reason why the school can't allow student groups — religious or otherwise — to get together outside during lunch. And there's no legal reason to forbid — the clubs from putting on programs — including programs with religious content — as long as members don't disrupt the educational program of the school or interfere with the rights of others.

Administrators have apparently been concerned that some students might be “offended” if the Easter program were to take place on campus. But objecting students wouldn't have to go near the program if they didn't want to hear it.

Moreover, allowing students to form religious and political extracurricular student clubs in high schools is what the Equal Access Act is all about. It's wrong for school officials to exercise a “heckler's veto” by banning student-club activities that someone might find offensive.

I don't yet know the outcome of the egg-hunt debate, but the dispute over the Easter celebration by the student club had a happy ending. Upon reflection — and after a few telephone calls from the National Association of Evangelicals — the school district wisely decided to allow the students to put on their program.

While not an Easter or Passover story — those stories being profoundly more significant — this has been a good civics lesson in how religious liberty in America ought to work.