The Separation of Church and State:
A Holiday Dilemma

How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom? Carefully! Religious holidays offer excellent opportunities to teach about religions in the elementary classroom; however, recognition of and information about such holidays should focus on the origin, history, and generally agreed-upon meaning of the observances. If the approach is objective, neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, it can foster understanding and mutual respect among students.
A holiday dilemma emerges when teachers must decide what can be taught about Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Durga Tuja, Easter, etc. As a solution, they may be tempted to avoid everything that has to do with religion. This dilemma reflects one of the most persistent areas of constitutional litigation affecting public education, that of the relationship between church and state.

High Court Reshaping Church-State Separation

While some lawsuits have involved claims under the free exercise clause, most school cases have focused on the interpretation of the establishment of religion clause. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” (emphasis added). There is much confusion due to a changing analysis of what constitutes establishment and free exercise in the context of K-12 education.

In June 1993, the courts further complicated this issue by upholding the practice of allowing a publicly paid hearing instructor to work with a deaf child in a parochial school (Coyle, 1993). The Supreme Court reasoned that if it benefits the student it is acceptable, if it advances religion it is not acceptable. This case, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, is viewed by many as the most significant challenge in a decade under the establishment clause because the broad ruling appeared to give the green light to additional kinds of government aid to non-public schools such as vouchers allowing parents educational choice. In effect, the ruling eliminates any constitutional barriers to public funding of sectarian schools and permits limited forms of public assistance to parochial schools. Coyle (1993) sees this as a severe breach of the wall between church and state.

Another Supreme Court case that has had a powerful impact on the church and state issue is Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches. This case permitted after-class use of rooms for church-related purposes. By making its facilities available after hours to social, civic, or recreational groups, the school district creates an open forum, and as such, cannot discriminate against eligible speakers on the basis of the content of their presentations. This case required the justices to articulate a clear standard for public forum speech controls as well as to address the interplay of public-forum doctrine with the establishment clause (Coyle, 1993).

Other significant 1993 Supreme Court cases dealing with the issue of separation of church and state included Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, which examined the constitutionality of four city ordinances banning ritual animal sacrifices, a rite central to the religion of the Church’s followers. The Supreme Court permitted the use of animal sacrifices because the ordinances in question showed discrimination regarding a particular church since the slaughter of animals was allowed for other purposes.
The Court also affirmed a lower court’s decision which had permitted prayer at public school graduations. The Court emphasized that public officials cannot prescribe citizen participation in religious rituals. Prayer becomes the object of controversy only when the element of official sponsorship is introduced.

The Place of Religion in the Curriculum

Questions concerning the place of religion in the curriculum of the public schools have existed since the birth of the public school movement. However, recent challenges to the curriculum raise complex questions involving the First Amendment’s definition of “religion.” Increasing numbers of allegations are being made that aspects of the public school curriculum violate the establishment of religion clause because they advance antitheistic belief or “secular humanism,” which disavows God and exalts humans as controllers of their own destiny. Evolution, sex education, and values clarification have been central targets of this type of litigation.
Although schools traditionally socialize students in common cultural values, many educators believe that a greater emphasis must be placed upon the transmission of ethics and morals. The controversial nature of programs to address these needs challenges public school educators who must guard the rights of each child in diverse student bodies. The holidays can prove to be especially troublesome for educators as they attempt to determine what religious beliefs and practices are subject to First Amendment protection and restrictions.

Through various decisions, the Supreme Court (Alexander & Alexander, 1992) has mandated that public schools must refrain from promoting any religion, expressing opposition or hostility to any religion, showing preference for one religion over another, or favoring religion over non-religion. The idea that a union of government and religion tends to undermine government and degrade religion underlies these decisions. Given this context, educators and citizens who value teaching about religion in the public schools are expressing their views and a growing movement of the Religious Right is fighting to keep certain issues such as sex education out of the public school curriculum.

Supreme Court Mandates

What do the Supreme Court mandates on separation of church and state mean to teachers? They mean that the public schoo#146;s approach to religion should be academic, not indoctrinating. It is appropriate for the public school to strive for student awareness of religion, but inappropriate to press for student acceptance of any one religion. Schools may sponsor the study of religion, expose students to a diversity of religious views, educate about all religions, and/or inform the student about various beliefs. But schools may not sponsor the practice of religion, impose any particular view, promote any religion or try to conform a student to any particular belief (St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, 1990).

The Supreme Court has ruled that the study of religion belongs in the curriculum whenever it naturally arises (Laycock, 1990). Concerning holidays, the law does not state that religious holidays cannot be taught, but common sense suggests that holidays must be approached carefully and with sensitivity. Information about holidays should focus on the origin, history, and generally agreed upon meaning of the observances, and must be objective, neither advancing nor inhibiting religion. The study of religious music or art as part of a music history or art appreciation course, or a course about various lands and cultures is also permissible. Although the Court has not clearly defined whether or not it is legal to sing such religious songs as Silent Night or O Holy Night, sensitivity would dictate that, perhaps, another, more secular choice of music would better meet the needs of all students.

Some teachers feel that isolating a child or asking him or her to leave the room while other children participate in holiday activities keeps the observance within the law. However, this practice raises serious legal concerns and puts undue pressure or stress on the child that must leave the room or sit in isolation.

Holiday decorations such as Christmas trees provide another holiday dilemma for teachers. Decorations should be kept secular and separated from religious celebrations. Religious holidays should also be treated fairly and in a comparable manner. An acceptable multicultural observance is not achieved by placing a Menorah next to a tree, for example. Paralleling Chanukah and Christmas traditions can miseducate students and discriminate against unrepresented groups as well.

Although public displays of religious symbols are not legally permissible, students may voluntarily wear religious symbols as a means of self expression. Students or teachers cannot be penalized for absences due to the celebration of religious holidays and neither may students who choose not to participate in religious holiday activities receive a penalty.

Holiday and religious practices which are legally permissible may still be offensive to others. This dilemma of addressing the multiple meanings given to various religious practices and symbols provides an opportunity for more in-depth understanding of differences, practice in conflict resolution, and ultimately, increased sensitivity in our civic lives.

Alexander, K., & Alexander, M. D. (1992). American public school law (3rd ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.
Coyle, M. (1993, March 1). High courts could reshape church-state. The National Law Journal, pp. 1, 16.
Laycock, D. (1990). The remnants of free exercise. Supreme Court Review, 1-68.
St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council (1990). December dilemma. St. Louis, MO: Author.

About the Author
Carole Murphy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary, Early Childhood, and Physical Education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, teaches social studies and curriculum courses.