What should schools do in December?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Decisions about what to do in December should begin with the understanding that public schools may not sponsor religious devotions or celebrations; study about religious holidays does not extend to religious worship or practice.

Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools? Probably not, and in any event, such an effort would be unrealistic. The resolution would seem to lie in devising holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students — programs that make no students feel excluded or forcibly identified with a religion not their own.

Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music related to Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religious traditions, but religious music should not dominate. Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. Conversely, Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle would not be appropriate in the public school setting.

Teachers may also teach about religious holidays in the classroom, but they must be alert to the distinction between teaching about such holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating them, which is not. Guest speakers also can help teachers present the appropriate information, but only if they understand their role as informational, not devotional, in nature.

In short, while recognizing the holiday season, none of the school activities in December should have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.