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Schools and Religious Holidays - How Can Schools Recognize Holidays?

Balancing Observance of Religious Holidays with Church/State Separation


Traditionally, public schools in America have been very explicit in their celebration of the holiday season — for students, it was a Christmas holiday season, a Christmas break, and celebratory events were specifically oriented towards Christmas. So long as America has been predominantly Christian in composition, such a focus went unchallenged and even unnoticed by the majority.

But the times are changing, and the assumptions of the past are no longer adequate to the reality of the present. Curiously, however, schools are largely changing not because they are forced to do so by the courts. Quite the contrary, the courts have regularly ruled that many traditional aspects of how schools recognize Christmas are entirely constitutional. Where schools change, it is because they themselves recognize that any holiday celebrations which focus on one religious tradition are unacceptable in a community where many religious traditions are expected to exist under equal terms.

School Closings
The most obvious evidence of school attempts to accommodate people’s religious beliefs and the one thing which is sure to affect everyone involved, regardless of their religious beliefs, is the decision to simply close a school during a religious holiday. Traditionally, this has only occurred around Christmas, but that is starting to change.

Holiday Programs
Aside from closing entirely, schools have also celebrated religious holidays by holding special programs — these can take the form of special classes which teach about the holiday, plays and musicals related to the holiday, and (most commonly) musical programs. There are few public schools in America which have not had Christmas holiday programs involving the school band and school choir performing Christmas music for the community (or at least the student body).

Court Cases
Summaries and backgrounds on several court cases that have addressed the degree to which public schools can recognize or participate in religious holidays. How far can a public school go when including religious symbols in school functions? Is it a violation of the separation of church and state to make students sing Christian songs in a public school choir?

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