Halloween activities in schools can be divisive

Sunday, October 15, 2000

If it's October, it must be Halloween. Kids are already clamoring for
costumes (we'll see a lot of Harry Potters), and stores are gearing up for the
annual economic bonanza.

But for many school administrators, Halloween is no longer any fun.
They're caught in the crossfire between parents who support and parents who
oppose Halloween observances in the classroom.

What to do? Eliminating Halloween because of religious objections from
some parents angers many others who insist on keeping it as a “fun time for
kids.” But ignoring complaints will only further alienate people who already
see public schools as hostile to their faith.

The solution might be simpler if Halloween were a First Amendment
issue. However, the courts are unlikely to rule that classroom celebrations are
an unconstitutional promotion of religion by school officials.

Yes, it's true that Halloween has religious roots in Samhaim, an
ancient Celtic festival. It's also true that some contemporary religious groups
have adopted Halloween as their religious holiday. But in our popular culture,
Halloween has long been severed from any religious meaning or intent —
particularly in the schools. Thus, despite the fact that some Christian and
Muslim parents see Halloween as filled with (negative) religious images and
messages, judges will likely view public-school celebrations of Halloween as
having a secular purpose that neither advances nor endorses religion.

The best way out of this dilemma is for schools to turn the
controversy into an opportunity for community dialogue about what's in the best
interest of all students. (I wouldn't suggest trying this in October,

Halloween supporters (often the majority) sometimes resist discussion
of the issue, arguing that the school shouldn't “cave in” to religious views
about a holiday that most kids enjoy.

But some of these same people are themselves quick to complain when
they think that administrators are ignoring them. Democratic citizenship
requires that we take each other seriously, especially when claims of
conscience are involved.

Educators and parents might begin this discussion by asking: How
important is Halloween to the educational mission of the school? Just because
many of the objections are based on religious convictions doesn't mean there
aren't educational or civic reasons for rethinking what's being done in the

Even if the school decides to keep Halloween, minimal fairness should
allow objecting parents to opt their kids out of all Halloween-related

Of course, this might be difficult if Halloween pervades the classroom
for days. I had a call last week from the resident of a school district where
the bus drivers dress up in costumes and hand out candy as kids get on the bus.
It's hard to opt out of that. At the very least, schools should consider toning
things down.

A more robustly fair approach might mean finding alternative “fun
activities” that everyone can enjoy. A growing number of schools, for example,
now have harvest festivals where kids can learn about the many ways various
cultures celebrate the fall season. Other schools turn the Halloween parties
and parades into after-school events for those parents and students who choose
to participate.

Whatever the outcome, it's worth the effort to find common ground on
this issue. While Halloween may be fun for many kids and good for the economy,
insisting on witches and ghosts and goblins in every classroom isn't worth the
risk of alienating parents from their schools.

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