In one of the most telling lines in a case, the Court in Skoros v. City of New York stated, “No holiday season is complete, at least for the courts, without one or more First Amendment challenges to public holiday displays.” In order to avoid being a named party in one of those holiday season cases, here are a few concepts to consider when the holidays start rolling around.
A few years ago, I walked into a common area of a public school and was stopped by a huge Nativity scene: Mary, Joseph, a manger with the Christ child (complete with halo), wise men, camels, sheep, shepherds and angels. The camels were about 3 feet tall and everything and everyone else was sized proportionately. Is there any way in which this display could be acceptable in a public school?
Given the size and extent of that particular Nativity scene, and the precedence of the display’s location, probably not. There are ways, however, that the religious background of Christmas can be included in a public school setting. If the school were teaching about the cultural backgrounds of each of the religious beliefs that celebrates a holiday in December as part of a multi-cultural unit or a religious studies unit, a more downsized crèche could be in one part of the room to represent Christianity and Christmas. Another part of the room could be decked out with a similarly sized menorah, and historical references to the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the temple, representing Hanukkah and Judaism. A third section could focus on Bodhi Day, the day of enlightenment for Buddhists, which falls around December 8th. Depending upon the year and the Muslim calendar, another section could be dedicated to Ramadan and Eid al-Adha or Eid Al Fitr. Kwanzaa, a holiday based on African harvest festivals used as a key to a celebration of African-American people, culture and values, could occupy another space. Still another part of the room could cover the Wiccan holiday of the solstice–Yule. The point is that while schools can teach about religious holidays as part of a cultural and historical survey of religions, a school cannot advance one religion over other religions or over no religion.
Basic lesson? If there is going to be a crèche as a decoration without the whole multicultural option, make it small and surround it with secular aspects of the holiday–Santa, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, and, yes, the Grinch, to dilute the religious aspects of the holiday and to focus, instead, on the secular aspects. Cut out snowflakes, not manger scenes. From the other perspective, may a school choose to exclude the nativity scene entirely and represent Christmas solely through the secular aspects of the season? Yes, absolutely.
Moving on to holiday musical performances, may the choir sing “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World”? Absolutely! Go ahead and include a song with a religious theme, just as long as plenty of secular songs or songs of other religions are also sung during the program.
What about the proselyting student? A student can’t distribute “Jesus ♥ Little Children” pencils in class. A student can’t distribute “A Candymaker’s Witness” story attached to candy canes during class. The student may distribute these same items during lunch, before school or after school. As long as there is no dress code regulation to the contrary and the student isn’t using the message contained on the clothing to intimidate others, a student may wear clothing with religious messages about the holiday.
Assuming, again, that there is no dress code to the contrary, a teacher may wear secularly themed Christmas sweaters and jewelry, but in a K-12 setting, an overtly religious message on a sweater would be inappropriate. The reason is that young children cannot separate a teacher’s personal beliefs from those of the public school.
As with the celebration of any holidays in public schools, the school must be aware of and sympathetic to religious differences among the students. Schools need to be ready to excuse students from participating in holiday events, if the parents are opposed to the event. The student should be provided with alternative educational options, and these options should be similarly FUN alternatives, not copying dictionary entries.
Because all the circumstances surrounding the inclusion of religion in a public school setting are considered by the Court in making its decision, it is important to check with your attorney before including religious content in school events.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact Education Law Attorney, Candyce B. Pardee at 800.863.6718, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area. 437 F.3d 1 (2nd Cir., 2006)  GASP!  and the girl reindeer who was such a bully named “Olive.” You know, “Olive, the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names.”  Skoros, Id.  The real “Joy to the World,” not the “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog” version, which is, unquestionably, a fine song to sing at school.  A story providing a religious explanation for the symbolism of the colors, the stripes, and the shape of the candy cane.  Walz ex rel Walz v. Egg Harbor Township Board of Education, 342 F.3d 271 (3rd Cir., 2002)