Religious Holidays in Public Schools

Every year the month of December has the potential for being a time of conflict in today's culturally diverse schools unless we make a strong effort to remind all educators, students and parents that public schools belong to all members of the community equally. Our civic agreement in America, founded in the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, binds us to the promise to protect the rights of each person for freedom of conscience. The last decades of exploding diversity has challenged California's public schools to deal creatively and sensitively with student populations representing many faiths or beliefs. Global political issues have only exacerbated the problem.

During a time of the year when major religious holidays are celebrated, it is important to remember that not everyone shares the beliefs of the majority. On the other hand, everyone does have the same right to believe or not to believe. To deal with this diversity effectively and with the least harm, it is essential for public school leaders, parents, and students to remember that the primary purpose of public schools is academic. It is appropriate in this setting to learn about religious beliefs and practices, but it is not right to celebrate or practice these beliefs in any manner.

December holidays are always a challenge. At this time of year, educators often receive conflicting and confusing advice about how to treat religious holidays in the public schools. It is best to remember that not only is December the month for the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, but it is also when the Mahayana Buddhists celebrate the Enlightenment of Buddha. This year the Muslim Hajj and the culminating celebration of Eid al Adha occurs in December. The month ends with the African American spiritual and cultural celebration of their African heritage.

Sensitivity to First Amendment rights may be difficult to garner on a school campus because for many the December "Christmas Season" is not religious but cultural. This happy time of decorated trees, parties, gifts and special food treats is sentimentally connected to people's perception of their childhood and to American folk tradition. In fact, some of these practices have been declared "secular" by the courts, so people have become used to the presence of decorated trees in city parks and libraries.

However, Dr. Charles Haynes of The First Amendment Center in Washington DC and a nationally recognized religious liberty scholar, warns that even if these symbols of a "secular" Christmas are legal in schools they may not be right. A more appropriate course of action is for schools to focus on their academic role. In Finding Common Ground, there is a chapter entitled "Religious Holidays in the Public Schools" which has been endorsed by a wide range of religious and educational leaders.

Dr. Haynes recommends that before planning December holiday concerts or other activities in a public school, choral directors, teachers, and administrators should ask themselves three simple questions:

1. Do we have a clear educational purpose? Under the First Amendment, learning about religious holidays is an appropriate educational goal – celebrating or observing religious holidays is not.

2. Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider by the concert, lesson or activity? Most parents and students are fine with learning about religious traditions – as long as the school’s approach is academic, not devotional. It is never appropriate for public schools to proselytize.

3. Is our overall curriculum balanced and fair? December shouldn’t be the only time sacred music pops up in the curriculum. Students should learn about religious music from various traditions at other times of the year.

For more information please see This policy suggestion, used by the California Three R's Project (A Civic Education and Religious Diversity Project co-sponsored by the California County Superintendents of Schools and The First Amendment Center) suggests guidelines that school leaders and teachers may follow when planning any holiday related activity during December. It is important to note that some traditionally December holidays are not major celebrations in the religious traditions of which they are a part, but have become so in many schools because of the attempt to reach out to non-Christian students. This is especially true of Hanukkah.

Margaret Hill, Ph.D. Director
California Three Rs

Before planning a religious holiday activity in a public school classroom or school,ask the following questions:
Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?
  1. How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course, or the educational mission of the school? 
  2. Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity? 
  3. If in December: Do I plan activities to teach about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December? 
  4. Am I prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students' understanding of history and cultures?