Teaching without Fear, Part 3: Addressing Religious Holidays at School

Facebook Ad (3)Thanksgiving and Christmas will soon be here. Do you need to strip them of their religious meaning when you recognize them in a public school? No, you don’t. This question was addressed in the federal court case of Lynch versus Sioux Falls School District. The school district had a very common-sense approach to handling holidays. It stated:

“Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.”

The ACLU didn’t like it and sued the school district. And…the ACLU lost at the local level. It appealed to the federal level, and lost again. In its ruling the Court wrote:

“We view the thrust of these rules to be the advancement of the students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage as well as the provision of an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience.

“It would be literally impossible to develop a public school curriculum that did not in some way affect the religious or nonreligious sensibilities of some of the students or their parents. School administrators should, of course, be sensitive to the religious beliefs or disbeliefs of their constituents and should attempt to avoid conflict, but they need not and should not sacrifice the quality of the students’ education.”

Sadly, in too many schools today the quality of the students’ education is being sacrificed because of misinformation. People are saying, “We can’t do this! The courts are all against it! It’s illegal! We’re going be sued!”

The fact of the matter is, the courts have supported appropriate inclusion of religion in the curriculum, whether it involves studying about it or recognizing it in relation to a holiday.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

  1. See if your school district already has a policy regarding recognition of holidays. If so, be sure to quote the policy on any holiday-related assignments or communication going home to families.
  2. If your school district doesn’t have a policy regarding holidays, recommend your school board adopt the Sioux Falls School District policy which has already stood the test of ACLU lawsuits.
  3. When communicating with students, parents, and colleagues, refer to acknowledging or recognizing a holiday. You should not celebrate it. Not everyone celebrates a particular holiday, but anyone can recognize it in fun and educational ways that include music, art, literature, and drama.