Conflict Between Law & Religion:A Peaceful Solution for the Teaching of December Holidays

Arthur Gross Schaefer and Michelle Britton Bass

A few years ago, a committee of diverse clergy, teachers, school administrators, and parents began meetings to discuss the issues surrounding December holidays in public schools in Santa Barbara. This article describes the process by which the group developed community-based guidelines for teaching the December holidays. The committee began by examining the concerns of teachers, parents, and students.

Holiday Concerns
Many teachers are anxious to create a joyous atmosphere for their students in December. They look forward to decorating the classroom in a festive manner, wearing Christmas clothing and accessories, exchanging gifts, using Christmas-oriented assignments and planning a holiday party. Teachers sometimes react in anger as well as fear if and when constraints are placed upon them by school districts, parents, or judicial rulings.
Typical school responses to concerns surrounding Christmas have been to change the Christmas party to a holiday party and the Christmas pageant to a "winter" program. Such winter programs usually involve the inclusion of a Hanukkah song, and the attempt to eliminate songs with any direct reference to the story of Christmas. This type of school response has developed out of fear and confusion, rather than being based on appropriate educational goals. Some schools and teachers who do not accept strictures placed on the holidays have gone to the extreme of doing absolutely nothing. Anger and fear may then be directed at members of minority groups for taking away this joyous December time.

Parents also have concerns about their children's experiences in school in December. Parents of non-Christian children have their own childhood memories, often negative, and wish to protect their children from these painful events. They worry that their children will be ostracized by the system, the teacher, and other students when it becomes obvious that they do not celebrate or accept the dominant culture's December holiday. At the same time, parents don't want to single out their children or have them miss school opportunities that others receive. In addition, many Christian parents are concerned that Christmas in the schools may be presented with a materialistic focus without religious substance. Some parents propose doing away with all holiday presentations in schools, while others want a change of focus. Some wish this change of focus to be one-sided, one that presents their specific holiday issues, while others push for a more pluralistic approach.

Last but not least, students have their own concerns about the December holidays. Exclusive attention to Christmas may send the message that it is an American holiday, and those who do not celebrate it are less then first class citizens. After years of receiving such a message, students may form negative attitudes toward those who do not celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, students who do not celebrate Christmas learn not only that they are in a minority, but come to believe they are not a real part of the American dream (Dershowitz, 1987). Islamic, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness, Eastern Orthodox, Secular Humanist, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahai, and other children pick up a negative message when their religious traditions are not included in holiday observances, while Christmas joy is celebrated and often promoted by authority figures in the school.

Legal Considerations
Many of our nation's founders held religious beliefs, yet also held a clear vision of a non-oppressive society. They established separation of church and state to create a society that would tolerate religious differences and would not endorse a state religion. To avoid a divided society with special status accorded to members of an 'accepted' religion, people of all religious views and affiliations were given equal status. No one would be officially relegated to 'second-class' status on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Although the Constitutional standards are not clear and are subject to varying interpretations, most legal scholars agree that public school education may include teaching about religion. In the case of Abington v. Schempp(1963), Justice Clark wrote:

[I]t might be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
Accordingly, most main-line religious organizations have accepted the position that teaching about religion can take place in the public schools. However, the specific decision as to what a teacher should do in his or her classroom is not clearly defined by the law.

Sensitivity to Minority Feelings
We believe that the process of developing guidelines should begin with a greater sensitivity to the feelings of those who are not in the majority. While one can discuss general concerns, first hand testimonies are an effective method to help majority members acquire new perspective. The three stories that follow were shared by parents who described their children's or their own experiences.

Jehovah's Witness
The year my son went to kindergarten, the teacher approached me on December 1 to tell me that they would be doing Christmas activities and songs for the rest of the month and that it would be a good idea for me not to send him for the next three weeks of school. I went to the principal, who supported the teacher and who suggested we put my son on independent study. Not wanting my son to miss that much school, I went back to the teacher and asked what times during the day they'd be singing the songs. I was willing to rearrange my schedule to bring him to the academic portions of the day. I thought maybe we could work something out where I would bring him late or pick him up early. But the teacher said the times for activities weren't scheduled and that it'd be too much bother to schedule them; she wanted to be free to do Christmas activities any time during the day. At the time I didn't think much about it. Looking back, I now realize that the teacher was unwilling to make any accommodations and did not understand our situation. Previously she had confided in me that she was comfortable with the needs of Jehovah's Witness children. That couldn't be further from the truth.

One of my earliest memories of being different was when our elementary school class sang Christmas carols. It was clear to me that most of my friends knew and enjoyed singing these songs that reminded them of a festive season. I also was aware that most of them had no idea that caroling presented a particular problem for me. Moreover, I was afraid to talk with my teacher, thinking that either she would not understand or that she would take some action such as having me leave the classroom or telling the class that they cannot sing certain songs that would point out that I was different.
My first decision was to sing the songs but not sing any word that referred directly or indirectly to Jesus, words like Christ, Jesus, Lord, Son of God, Savior, Son of Mary, boy child. If I felt that the song was "too Christian," I avoided the whole song.

This worked for a while until our class was asked to sing at an upcoming school concert. The teacher started making sure that we were all singing loudly. She quickly noticed that there were certain words that I would not use. When I explained to her my problems, she solved the whole thing. She told me that I did not have to sing for she had another job I could do during the concert. She had me hold the star of Bethlehem.

I'm so grateful for the cultural diversity I feel my son has been exposed to at his school, especially his exposure to Jewish children. At opening day ceremonies for Little League a few years back, a preacher prayed a very Christian prayer using 'Jesus' in this multicultural setting. Afterwards, my son was outraged and said to me, "Mom, that guy prayed to Jesus in a Little League game. Doesn't he know that everyone here isn't Christian! How does he think the Jewish kids felt?" My son's own Christian beliefs haven't been lessened at all by his learning about Hanukkah and other Jewish Holy Days, but his horizons have been broadened and his sensitivities deepened.

Community-Based Guidelines
After sharing concerns and listening to personal stories, our committee reviewed curriculum materials in use to help teachers decide what they should teach in the classroom. We paid special attention to the guides distributed by main-line religious organizations. In 1988, an unprecedented coalition of organizations-ranging from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the National Association of Evangelicals to the American Federation of Teachers and the National School Boards Association-issued two documents on teaching religion and religious holidays in the public schools. These two publications, Religion in the Public Schools Curriculum (Haynes et al, 1993) and Religious Holidays in the Public Schools (Haynes et al, 1993), carefully presented general principles based on Constitutional limits.
For example, Religion in the Public Schools Curriculum states that public schools may approach the study of religion from an academic, but not from a devotional, point of view and may expose students to a diversity of religious views but may not impose any particular view. Religious Holidays in the Public Schools cautioned that the Supreme Court case of Engle v. Vitale 1962 prohibits schools from sponsoring religious practices or from using the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to inject personal religious beliefs into the curriculum. These two pamphlets have been well received, and Haynes and Kniker (1990) believe it is important that both documents be in the hands of every teacher.

Nonetheless, both guides deal with issues on a theoretical level. Neither provides examples of applications or answers educators questions about what should or should not be done in the school. For example, should a math teacher give out homework asking students to count the number of ornaments on a Christmas tree? Should a teacher ask a Jewish student to light the Hanukkah candles and sing the blessings? Can a teacher distribute homemade Christmas cookies? Is it appropriate for a school authority, such as a principal, to make a presentation about Christmas if he is on a panel discussing various religious holidays?

As our group continued to meet to develop more specific guidelines for the classroom teacher, four implementation issues emerged:

1.Multicultural activities are critical, irrespective of the particular religious groups represented among classroom students. We teach about Native Americans even if no student in the classroom is of Native American descent. We teach about European immigration to the United States in an entirely Latino classroom. Similarly, all prevalent December holidays need to be taught to enrich each student's experience and prepare them for living in a multicultural society.
2.Teachers, principals and other authority figures in the schools must be aware of the powerful messages of acceptance and exclusion that their actions convey with regard to these holidays. When a teacher lights a Hanukkah menorah or a principal wears an Easter sweater, powerful messages are being communicated. In addition, when a school authority figure presents holidays that he/she observes personally, but brings in guest speakers to teach about other holidays, students may believe that one holiday is preferred above the others. It is therefore important to consider issues of equal time, equal coverage, and the potential impact of presenters' status in the school.
3.The use of clergy within the classroom raises at least four concerns. First, while it may seem natural to bring in clergy as 'experts' on particular religious holidays, many people feel so uncomfortable with religion being taught in the schools that the presence of clergy in schools is problematic. Second, within most religions there are different denominations and differing views. Accordingly, the
selection of one particular clergy over another may be viewed as the school endorsing a specific view point. Third, it is important to keep in mind potential imbalances when using both clergy and non-clergy presenters. Finally, the utilization of 'popular' or well known clergy may be perceived as unfavorably stacking the presentation in favor of a particular religious tradition. Therefore, we recommend the use of skilled educators as presenters rather then clergy.
4.It is sometimes easy to blur the distinction between teaching about and celebrating a holiday when using ritual objects. While it may be important to narrate and show ritual objects as part of a class program, it is generally ill advised to enact the ritual itself with the accompanying prayers (e.g., lighting the Hanukkah menorah while reciting the prayers). It is also important to consider the impact of keeping ritual objects in a classroom for a period of time (e.g., a Christmas tree). For even with the best of intent, the presence of ritual objects may either convey a message of observance and celebration or trivialize the religious symbol.
The consensus arrived at by our committee resulted in four guidelines that seek to enhance multicultural awareness.

Guidelines for Multicultural Awareness
1.Teach about holidays rather than celebrate holidays.
2.Introduce students to the diverse celebrations that occur during the month of December.
3.Focus on common themes, such as light and family closeness, for effective teaching about the various holidays.
4.Infuse religious and cultural diversity into other areas of the curriculum at other times of the year.
Each guideline that appears in the table on pages 310-311 is accompanied by a description of how different children may feel, as well as activities that are both supportive and counterproductive to each goal. We share them with the understanding that each community must take the time necessary to form its guidelines based on a community's unique circumstances and characteristics.

Our community-drafted guidelines aim to deal with the day-to-day issues specific to school activity. More importantly, these guidelines may help teachers and administrators to become more aware of the real issue: the pain suffered by students and parents with minority religious views. They address the very issue at the heart of the December holiday dilemma in the schools: sensitivity.

Sample Community-Based Guidelines Based on the Four Multicultural Awareness Goals

Multicultural Awareness Goal 1
Teach about holidays rather than celebrate holidays.
How a Child Might Feel
Excitement and anticipation of an approaching holiday is heightened due to the classroom atmosphere and environment. A student who does not participate in the celebration of that holiday may feel uncomfortable or left out when surrounded by holiday symbols.

Suggested Activities to Fulfill Goal

Activities Counterproductive to Goal

Multicultural Awareness Goal 2
Introduce students to the diverse celebrations that occur
during the month of December. Because students are enriched
by diversity, focus on the feeling of celebration which is
common to all holidays.

How a Child Might Feel
By focusing on one or two specific holidays, some students may feel singled out, uncomfortable, or alienated because they do not celebrate that holiday. (Be sensitive to some groups that may not participate in any celebrations, e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses.) All students should have the opportunity to learn about the holidays of other cultures.

Suggested Activities to Fulfill Goal

Activities Counterproductive to Goal

Multicultural Awareness Goal 3
There are commonalties among the holidays in December.
How a Child Might Feel
Students often get a strong message from teachers that they support a particular holiday(s). Students who do not celebrate those particular holidays may feel excluded or not supported by the teacher.

Suggested Activities to Fulfill Goal

Activities Counterproductive to Goal

Multicultural Awareness Goal 4
See diversity within the context of the rest of the curriculum and the rest of the year.
How a Child Might Feel
If only presented with a narrow perspective, students do not have the opportunity to learn about others in the world, and they may feel curious or ignorant of other holidays celebrated by their friends, family and ancestors.

Suggested Activities to Fulfill Goal

Activities Counterproductive to Goal

Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)Boston, R. Stealth Evangelism. Church and State 47 (1994), 4-8.Dershowitz, A. M. Chutzpah. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.Engle v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 203 (1962)Goodhue, T. W. "Introducing Religion into the Classroom." The Education Digest 57 (1991): 67-69.Haynes, C. C., Cassity, M. D., Stone M.S. The State of California Three Rs Project Manual: Rights, Responsibilities and Respect. Fairfax, First Liberty Institute, 1993.Haynes, C. C. and Kniker, C.R. "Religion in the Classroom: Meeting the Challenges and Avoiding the Pitfalls," Social Education 54, 5 (September 1990): 305-309, 332.National Council for the Social Studies. Position Statement and Guidelines. "Including the Study about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum," Social Education, 54, no. 5 (September 1990): 310.Dr.

Arthur Gross Schaefer is a Professor of Business Law at Loyola Marymount University and an ordained Rabbi.
Dr. Michelle Britton Bass is the coordinator of the Comprehensive Teacher Education Institute in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.