This document is jointly sponsored and distributed by seventeen religious, legal, and educational bodies in the United States, whose names are listed at the end.
Since 1776 the United States has grown from a nation of relatively few religious differences to one of countless religious groups. This expanding pluralism challenges the public schools to deal creatively and sensitively with students professing many religions and none.
The following questions and answers concern religious holidays and public education, a subject often marked by confusion and conflict. Teachers and school officials, as well as parents and students, should approach this discussion as an opportunity to work cooperatively for the sake of good education rather than at cross-purposes.
School districts developing guidelines about religious holidays will want to base their policies in the shared commitment of respect for individual religious beliefs expressed in the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty. This means that public schools may neither promote nor inhibit religious belief or non-belief. Drafters of such guidelines also will want to take account of the role of religion in history and culture.
Awareness of legal issues is essential in considering religion and public education, but the law does not supply answers to every question. Within the current legal framework, schools—their boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students—must make many practical decisions regarding religious holidays. this work can be done only by showering sensitivity to the needs of every student on the one hand and the promotion of religion on the other.
For further assistance and materials, contact the sponsoring organizations.
Q: What do the courts say?
A: The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious practices (Engel v. Vitale, 1962; Abington v. Schempp, 1963) but may teach about religion.
While having made no definitive ruling on religious holidays in the schools, the Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court decision stating that recognition of holidays may be constitutional if the purpose is to provide secular instruction about religious traditions rather than to promote the particular religion involved (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 8th Cir., 1980).
Q: Do religious holidays belong in the curriculum?
A: The study of religious holidays may be included in elementary and secondary curricula as opportunities for teaching about religions. Such study serves the academic goals of educating students about history and cultures as well as the traditions of particular religions in a pluralistic society.
Q: When should teaching about religious holidays take place?
A: On the elementary level, natural opportunities arise for discussion of religious holidays while studying different cultures and communities. In the secondary curriculum, students of world history or literature have opportunities to consider the holy days of religious traditions. Teachers find it helpful when they are provided with an inclusive calendar noting major religious and secular holidays with brief descriptions of their significance.
Q: How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom?
A: 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 will want to avoid asking students to explain their beliefs and customs. An offer to do so should be treated with courtesy and accepted or rejected depending on the educational relevancy.
Teachers may not use the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to proselytize or to inject personal religious beliefs into the discussion. Teachers should avoid this by teaching through attribution; i.e. by reporting that “some Buddhists believe…”
Q: May religious symbols be used in public school classes?
A: The use of religious symbols, provided they are used only as examples of cultural or religious heritage is permissible as a teaching aid or resource. Religious symbols may be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic program. Students may choose to create artwork with religious symbols, but teachers may not assign or suggest such creations.
Q: May religious music be used in public schools?
A: 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 avoid programs dominated by religious music, especially when these coincide with a particular religious holiday.
The use of art, drama or literature with religious themes is also permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum, but not if used as a vehicle for promoting religious belief.
Q: What about Christmas?
A: 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.
Q: Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools?
A: 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 identified with a religion not their own.
Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music related to Christmas and Hanukkah, but religious music should not dominate. Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate in the public school setting.
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.
Q: What about religious objections to some holidays?
A: Students from certain religious traditions may ask to be excused from classroom discussions or activities related to particular holidays. Some holidays considered by many people to be secular (for example, Halloween and Valentine’s Day) 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 non-academic activities. Such requests are routinely granted.
In addition, some parents and students may make requests for excusal from discussions of certain holidays even when treated from an academic perspective. If focused on a limited, specific discussion, such requests may be granted 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 that a policy of excusing students from a specific activity or discussion can not be used as a rational for school sponsorship of religious celebration or worship for the remaining students.
Q: May students be absent for religious holidays?
A: Sensitive school policy on absences will take account of 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 examinations in conjunction with such absences.
Q: What steps should school districts take?
A: In a pluralistic society, public schools are places for persons of all faiths and none. Schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion. In order to respect religious liberty and advance education, we recommend that each school district take the following steps:
- Develop policies about the treatment of religious holidays in the curricula and inform parents of those policies.
- Offer pre-service and in-service workshops to assist teachers and administrators in understanding the appropriate place of religious holidays in the schools.
- Become familiar with the nature and needs of the religious groups in the school community.
- Provide resources for teaching about religions and religious holidays in ways that are constitutionally permissible and educationally sound.
Sponsored jointly by:
American Academy of Religion
American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Congress
Americans United Research Foundation
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Community on Public Affairs
Christian Legal Society
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
National Association of Evangelicals
National Conference of Christians and Jews
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
National Council on Religion and Public Education
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National School Boards Association
[“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.” Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. www.freedomforum.org. 2011.]