THE DECEMBER DILEMMA
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
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
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.
California Three Rs