Schools Use Holidays to Teach, Not Preach, Religions

December 14, 2008

Author: Amy Crawford

Source: Tribune-Review

At Penn-Trafford's Harrison Park Elementary School last week, students could buy gifts for friends and family at the Secret Santa Shop, a fundraiser run by the Parent Teacher Organization. A decorated tree stood near the front door, and plans were in the works for a party on Dec. 23, the last day before Winter Break.

"But we don't actually say the word Christmas," said Lisa Tramuta, secretary of the PTO. "I guess you have to be politically correct."

Many public schools approach December with trepidation, as they decide how to acknowledge Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays in a way that includes everyone and alienates no one.

If a school goes too far in its Christmas celebration, Jewish, Muslim or secular students might feel left out. If a school purges religion completely, Christian students might feel cheated out of a meaningful celebration. Worried about lawsuits and angry parents, schools must balance different interests.

"A lot of schools just sort of muddle through this issue and wait to see if someone complains," said Charles C. Haynes, who studies issues of religious freedom at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. Haynes, who often helps school districts navigate what he calls the "December dilemma," said that he encourages administrators to develop a policy on Christmas before emotions begin running high.

"Clearly, public schools are not allowed to promote religion," Haynes said. This principle dates back to 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that public schools could not begin the school day with a prayer.

But beyond that, school officials and parents are often confused about whether they can celebrate Christmas, and to what extent.