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School Holiday Programs - Can Schools Have Religious Holiday Programs?

Balancing Observance of Religious Holidays with Church/State Separation


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).

Unfortunately, such Christmas music is heavily Christian in nature — something which can make members of other faiths feel excluded and even like second-class citizens. This does not mean, however, that such programs are unconstitutional — in fact, just about everything associated with such programs is completely constitutional according to court decisions over the past two decades.


What Public Schools Can Do

Can schools continue to refer to the holidays breaks and programs by their religious titles, like Christmas and Easter? Absolutely — there is no requirement to rename them to titles like Winter Break or Spring Break. Can schools display holiday-themed religious symbols during the holiday season? Absolutely — but only so long as the display of those symbols is part of some legitimate instructional plan by the school. The display of the symbols for the purpose of endorsement, favoritism or proselytization is, of course, excluded.

Can schools hold holiday programs which include the singing of explicitly religious songs and the use of explicitly religious themes, for example singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” in front of a nativity display? Once again, the answer is “Yes” — but also once again, only if part of an educational curriculum which is designed to explain to students the religious and cultural heritage of the date in a “prudent and objective manner” (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District). Usually courts will look at musical programs in the same way that they look at religious displays — thus, the existence of a secular component (like “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” alongside “Silent Night”) helps ensure that the program is legitimate.


Secularizing School Holidays

So, is this what public schools do? For the most part, it is — but it is also weakening every year, and the religious overtones of traditionally religious holiday observances are fading. Administrators have grown wary of doing anything which might violate the separation of church and state — and more importantly, of anything which might arouse the ire of religious minorities in the community.

Christmas and Easter closings are commonly referred to simply as Winter and Spring breaks. Fewer and fewer religious songs are being sung during ostensibly Christmas holiday programs — and sometimes, even the Christmas title is being dropped in favor of something more generic, like Winter Holiday Program. Christmas Trees are called Giving Trees and Christmas Parties are called Holiday Parties.

Those who are uncomfortable with dropping too much of the traditional Christian content try to strike a balance by including content from other religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam. The result is still a weakening of the overtly sectarian character of these observances — something which angers conservative Christians but which is generally welcome by other religious communities.

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