Holidays, public schools and what it means to be 'American'

October 15, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment

     Battles this month over holidays in public schools — from Halloween in Connecticut to Christmas in Indiana — are about far more than witches, ghosts, Santa Claus, or Jesus.

     What's really at stake for people on all sides are emotional questions such as "whose schools are these?" and "what kind of nation are we — will we become?"

     As the United States grows increasingly diverse, our perennial holiday fights turn public schools into a microcosm of the public square, places where we debate and define what it means to be "American" across differences that are often deep and abiding.

     Consider the angry backlash earlier this month when school officials in Milford, Connecticut banned the traditional Halloween parade and other activities in Milford's elementary schools.

     With growing numbers of families opting out for religious or cultural reasons, the district decided the time had come to axe the holiday. "School-day activities must be inclusive," explained administrators in a letter sent home to parents.

     The keep-Halloween crowd sprang into action. Halloween, it turns out, is one of those "growing up in America" traditions — like Thanksgiving and Christmas — that some people insist be celebrated in schools.

     "These are our American customs and traditions," argued the parent who organized the petition drive to save Halloween, "and we should not give them up because others find them offensive!"

     After hundreds of parents signed the petition, the Milford school district backed down and re-instated Halloween celebrations at the schools.

     Halloween may have survived this year in Milford, but the trend in many other school districts is to substitute "fall festivals" for Halloween or at least dial back the Halloween parties, lessons, parades and art — which can last for weeks in some schools.

     Despite the religious objections of some Christians, Muslims and others, Halloween isn't a First Amendment issue because the holiday as celebrated in schools is purely secular with no direct connection to the complicated religious origins of the holiday in distant history.

     That means schools may, if they so choose, waste all the time they want to on secular Halloween celebrations without violating the Establishment clause — as long as they are careful to uphold the Free Exercise clause by excusing children with religious objections.

     But even though Halloween parties are legal, many school officials have decided — probably wisely — that this is not the culture-war molehill they want to die on. After all, why keep doing something with so little educational merit that upsets so many parents?

     Christmas, however, is a more challenging holiday dilemma. School activities in December not only stir debates about preserving "American traditions," they implicate the First Amendment.

     Last week, the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit on behalf of a student and his father who object to the annual "Christmas Spectacular" program at the high school in Elkhart, Indiana.

     Most of the program performed by students each year would appear to be legally unobjectionable with a variety of seasonal music, religious and secular. But the event always ends with a 20-minute re-enactment of the birth of Jesus — a live Nativity scene complete with scriptural readings and sacred music.

     Most people in Elkhart — including the entire school board — want to fight to keep the Nativity pageant, arguing that it is a time-honored American tradition that reflects the beliefs and values of the majority.

     But religious freedom in America, which requires that government not take sides in religion, is not up for a vote.

     Under the First Amendment, school officials may not turn the local school into the local church in December or at any other time of year.

     A reenactment of the birth of Jesus — a sacred event for Christians — belongs in houses of worship where believers voluntarily come together to practice their faith. It does not belong in a public school where there is a captive audience of impressionable young people.

     Of course, public school programs may include religion — what would a music curriculum be without any sacred music? Following First Amendment guidelines, religion may be included in school programs if, and only if, the purpose is educational and not devotional.

     The job of public schools is to not to celebrate religious holidays, but to teach students about Christianity and other religions in history, literature, art, and music or wherever in the curriculum study about religions is necessary for a good education.

     In a changing America, getting holidays right in public schools isn't easy. The current conflicts in school districts like Milford and Elkhart are reminders that Americans are no longer united — if we ever were — by Halloween parades or Nativity pageants.

     But if we care about our life together as American citizens, we should be united by a shared commitment to the principles of religious freedom that ensure fairness and respect for people of all faiths and beliefs.

     Beyond our diverse holidays and customs, that's what it truly means to be an American.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: Twitter: @hayneschaynes.

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