Our Gift to You Is Holiday Guidance
When Andy Williams sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he clearly was not singing to school administrators! The next couple of months can be stressful for school officials seeking to navigate the holiday season without violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Our gift to you is guidance on how to handle religious holidays at school.
The starting point is the Supreme Court’s three-part test for determining whether governmental activity complies with the Establishment Clause:
1. The purpose of the activity must be secular (non-religious);
2. The principal or primary effect of the activity must not advance or inhibit religion; and
3. The activity must not result in an excessive entanglement with religion.
Applying this test, courts have held that public schools cannot sponsor religious practices, such as prayer or devotional Bible readings. But that does not mean that school officials cannot recognize religious holidays. School officials should consider the following factors if seeking to recognize a religious holiday while meeting the three-part test.
- The purpose of recognizing a religious holiday at school must be educational. Focus lessons on the origin, history, and generally agreed-upon meaning of the religious holiday.
- Do not promote or denigrate any particular religion or holiday.
- Consider diversity and recognize holidays among various religions throughout the school year. This will support the social and secular purpose of the instruction.
- Have a legitimate educational purpose for using any religious symbols as part of the recognition of the holiday (e.g., school officials should use such symbols only as teaching aids and resources on a temporary basis during instruction, not as decorations that stay up all season long).
- Include secular, non-religious symbols of the season as part of the instruction.
- Students may perform religious music during concerts provided that there is a variety of music that balances religious music (not just Christian music) with non-religious music.
- Honor the requests of students and parents who ask to be excused from holiday-related activities, and do not ostracize students who opt out of holiday events. School officials should not use a student’s decision to opt out as permission to turn the holiday education into a religious celebration.
Following these guidelines does not guarantee school officials a stress-free holiday season, but will help prevent constitutional violations.