Holidays provide schools occasion to teach about religions

Sunday, December 5, 1999

For too many school districts, this season of “peace and goodwill” is disintegrating into a month of fights and lawsuits.

It's almost like clockwork each year. The Rockefeller Center tree appears, and the calls start coming about Christmas in the schools.

“Why has my school thrown out Christmas?” “I don't want my daughter singing 'Silent Night.'” “Is it legal to put a tree and menorah up in the lobby?” And on and on.

Rather than deal with these questions substantively and thoughtfully, some administrators and parents just want to know what they can “get away with.”

Yes, you may be able to get away with putting up Christmas trees in the school lobby (since many judges view the tree as a “secular” symbol) and with tacking Santa up everywhere. But is it the right thing to do?

You may be able to get away with stripping the school of all holiday decorations and eliminating all religious music from the school program. But is that the right thing to do?

Doing what is both legal and right takes a little work and lots of good will. The all-important first step is for the school board to develop a sound policy, making sure that parents and other community members are well-represented in the process.

A sound policy is one that is built on a clear understanding of what is and isn't permissible under current law. Consensus guidelines on “religious holidays in the public schools” are published by the First Amendment Center and can be obtained on our Web site or by writing to us.

The core of our advice is to use various religious holidays — Christmas included — as opportunities for teaching about religions. There's a big difference between teaching about a religious holiday in public schools, which is constitutional, and celebrating a religious holiday, which is not.

Does this mean that all holiday decorations and programs should be eliminated? No, of course not.

But why not put up displays that reflect what the students are learning in the classroom? Include a variety of holidays and cultures. Let student artwork be the primary “decoration.”

And why not plan school concerts that feature a variety of selections, including sacred music? Any good academic program in music will expose students to important religious music.

The bottom line: If teachers do a good job of teaching about some of the major religious traditions at various times of the year, the treatment of religious holidays becomes a natural part of the curriculum. In this way, the school recognizes Christmas and other religious holidays in ways that are both legal and right.

This leaves us with the problem of the cultural Christmas — what I call the “shopping-mall Christmas.” That's more a question of sensitivity than legality. While putting greenery, Santa and Rudolph on the walls may not be a strictly “religious” act, many non-Christians see such displays as promoting a particular religion. (And many Christians object to having their faith reduced to Santa Claus.)

I would argue that it is neither sensitive nor fair to put Christmas decorations all over the school. But it also isn't sensitive or fair to ignore the holiday entirely.

If we're ever to get beyond this “December dilemma,” then people on the one side must quit making schools resemble the local church (or shopping mall) and people on the other side must stop trying to push every vestige of religion out of the schools.

The solution is to adopt the approach most likely to bring the community together: Encourage appropriate teaching about religious holidays in the classroom, and create school-wide activities and decorations that enrich the educational experience for all students.

That's the best way to promote the principles of the First Amendment — and the true spirit of the holidays.