How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom?
Teachers must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not. Recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings. If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief. Teachers may not, however, use the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to proselytize or otherwise inject their personal religious beliefs into the discussion.
The use of religious symbols is permissible as a teaching aid or resource, provided they are used only as examples of cultural or religious heritage. Religious symbols may be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic lesson being studied. Students may choose to create artwork with religious symbols, but teachers should not assign or suggest such creations.
Guest speakers also can help teachers present the appropriate information, but only if they understand their role as informational, not devotional, in nature.
In addition, the use of art, drama, music, or literature with religious themes is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum. Such themes should be included on the basis of their academic or aesthetic value, and not as a vehicle for promoting religious beliefs. For example, sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music. Concerts should, however, avoid programs dominated by religious music, especially when these coincide with a particular religious holiday.
How should religious objections to holidays be handled?
Students from certain religious traditions may ask to be excused from classroom discussions or activities related to particular holidays. For example, holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, which are considered by many people to be secular, are viewed by others as having religious overtones.
Excusal requests may be especially common in the elementary grades, where holidays are often marked by parties and similar nonacademic activities. Such requests should be routinely granted in the interest of creating good policy and upholding the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.
In addition, some parents and students may make requests for excusals from discussions of certain holidays, even when these holidays are treated from an academic perspective. If these requests are focused on a limited, specific discussion, administrators should grant such requests, in order to strike a balance between the student’s religious freedom and the school’s interest in providing a well-rounded education.
Administrators and teachers should understand, however, that a policy or practice of excusing students from a specific activity or discussion may not be used as a rationale for school sponsorship of religious celebration or worship for the remaining students.
May students be absent for religious holidays?
Schools should have policies concerning absences that take into account the religious needs and requirements of students. Students should be allowed a reasonable number of excused absences, without penalties, to observe religious holidays within their traditions. Students may be asked to complete makeup assignments or tests in conjunction with such absences.
What should schools do in December?
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.
At my children’s school around Christmas, outside speakers have come in to teach about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Does the school have to give equal time to another speaker who might want to discuss why Christians celebrate Christmas?
The school probably does not have to give equal time for other outside speakers. But if the school is bringing speakers in to discuss holidays in December, it makes educational sense to include Christmas. All outside speakers should follow First Amendment guidelines for teaching about the holidays.