It’s time to play… Spot that holiday violation 2008!

Christmas 2008 is right around the corner and that means it’s time to play…


Here are the rules:

  1. Only American public schools are eligible. [sorry, international readers]
  2. Identify a possible violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution in your local school system. The Establishment Clause requires that schools not favor a) one religion (e.g., Christianity) over another religion, or b) religion over no religion. Government-sponsored religious displays or activities are pretty much always unconstitutional.
  3. Leave your description of the possible violation in the comments section of this post. If you’re not sure if it’s a violation or not, leave it anyway and we’ll chime in as needed. Possible violations may include teacher- or school-sponsored activities, displays, or other actions.
  4. The most egregious violation [as judged by myself, Justin Bathon (at CASTLE’s brother blog, EdJurist), and Jon Becker (of Educational Insanity)] wins a yet-to-be-determined prize!
  5. Deadline for entries is December 23, 2008.

Good luck!

64 Responses to “It’s time to play… Spot that holiday violation 2008!”

  1. Is Christmas really a religious holiday anymore? It seems to have become more secular as cities and state capitals decorate for the season.

  2. At the risk of being drawn and quartered for crimes committed against the Establishment (hehe), I’ve asked a question that requires a simple YES/NO answer.

    how about it folks?

  3. @ Jon
    I would agree with you when you say:
    So, Marshall, the Est. Clause is not there to “prevent any one group from expressing happiness and cheer in a respectful manner.” It’s there to prevent government actors from making proclamations that endorse a particular religion.

    Much like the helmet laws in several states were not created to “deprive a motorcycle rider of enjoyment of the full riding experience.” It’s there to minimize the injuries that government officials believe can be prevented with this particular equipment.

    In both situations I disagree with the effectiveness of the solution, but more importantly both have another similarity in that the intent of both above is noted in each sentence II, but the reality that has developed is noted clearly in sentence I.

    @ Scott
    Related to the “inclusiveness concern” and making sure that “ALL kids” feel welcomed, does this extend beyond those that actually attend our school? In other words, should I be sure to include a comfort level for Wiccan ceremonies and Jewish customs (or Christian or Pagan practices) if we don’t have students that believe this? How do we know whether they are in our buildings or not and what all (or any) of the symbolism may mean? Does that include established and/or developing gangs that use symbolism frequently to express their belief of cohesiveness and loyalty? Do we need to make sure that these students are made to feel comfortable, even if they don’t exist or we don’t know about them? Are we “safe” in our community until someone objects to a display, and then we need to look at whether it is religious, promoted, and/or offensive? Like my usual, many questions and opinions, not many answers and solutions.

    I think any of these topics can be addressed and taught (as noted several times in this post) if the teaching is for learning and educating, not conversion – no problem there.

    We consistently welcome our foreign exchange students that often bring non-Christian beliefs and religions to our school, and we encourage them to share them with us as a school. It is a great opportunity to learn from others, but it may also indicate that the administration and/or teachers are promoting that religion by focusing on that uniqueness.

    I don’t’ have all the legalese that many of you possess, but as a practitioner, it is my desire to understand what I am to do to best serve my students, ALL of them.

    And again I say, “Happy Bloggindervin!”

  4. @Marshall: You ask, “Do we need to make sure that these students are made to feel comfortable, even if … we don’t know about them?”

    In Santa Fe v. Doe, the Supreme Court said that a school district in Texas could not allow pre-game prayer to occur over the football stadium PA system. If I remember correctly, the lawsuit was brought by three students who were Catholic, Mormon, and atheist. The prayer was long-standing practice in a heavily Southern Baptist community. I think the three families just finally had enough and sued. I guess my short answer to your question is that you never know what beliefs are in your community so you should be pretty wary about making assumptions about who believes what…

    I think you’ve got two choices as a school administrator. The first is to try and be as reasonably inclusive as possible. This likely means recognizing the beliefs of more than one denomination / faith in your displays, actions, etc. and would be in line with the cases that say that it’s okay for government to display a creche along with a Star of David and other religion’s symbols. The second option is to stay out of it altogether. As Miguel notes in his link above, this is probably the easiest way out. It also may be more ideologically pure in the sense that you don’t then have to wrestle with these quandaries about which (and how many) faiths (including non-faith) need to be represented in order to be “fair” and “legal” and “inclusive.”

    As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once noted, “We do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.” In other words, we don’t allow the majority of folks to impose their religious beliefs/practices on the remaining members of their community. That’s as it should be if we truly believe in everyone’s religious freedom and that’s why personally I have trouble with “Christmas” taking a prominent role in public schools. The religious aspects are of legal concern and I also think the overwhelming presence of “secular” elements sends the wrong messages to those who don’t celebrate the holiday. If I’m a kid from an atheist or Hindu family, for example, I’m not sure I want to be surrounded by Christmas. Christmas! CHRISTMAS! in my face all the time when I go to school.

    Now, having said that, I also understand the practical aspects of the principalship and educators’ desire to recognize the major events that are occurring in their and their families’ lives. But I believe that a lot of school communities definitely violate the inclusiveness principle and are walking a fine line when it comes to the legal standard.

  5. When do things get out of control? My first teaching job they did a “morning devotional” over the PA, I spoke up against it, but was overruled and pressured to say nothing.
    In the Washington State Capital there has been some issues regrading displays
    Wouldn’t be be easier to ‘just say no’ to any display. Here is a posting from the church of the flying spaghetti monster
    Pastafarians Unite!

  6. That’s a good one Chan. Nice catch.

    The Florida Department of Education here is clearly going for the “maybe if we include all kinds of religions it will be okay” tact. I really dislike that particular argument because any one by itself would violate the Establishment Clause, but apparently all together they do not? Seems odd to me because there is no way to cover every religion and that doesn’t take atheists into account either. I don’t think schools should get by just because they include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in the list of Christmas stories which includes “Gift of the Magi.”

  7. So….
    Educational law is important but what happens when it blockades learning and the learning environment?
    Example: Child comes in into a classroom with a sharing (show and tell) item, a Christmas ornament he/she and his/her mother made and wants to tell the class all about his Christmas beliefs.
    Example: Many of your students are Christians and fill the daily conversations with Christmas stories and beliefs.
    Example: A few students come to school the day before WINTER BREAK with cards and gifts for their teacher wishing him/her a Merry Christmas.
    Example: No present to return to students above.
    The law tells us a lot of things, but does it tell us what to say or do in the above situations. What is the correct and legal dialogue that is used on the spot with those children that we are trying to teach. Responses that show respect and build a nurturing classroom and school environment with reference to the culture and climate of the community are not easy to spit out when a five year old hands you a homemade ornament and wishes you Merry Christmas.
    and yes…
    a heartfelt Merry Christmas to all bloggers!

  8. Yo Scott, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  9. This is a great debate and one that should be part of our social studies curriculum. It would certainly be more engaging than memorizing just what each ammendment says or completing a worksheet outlining when each was written. I don’t think we ask students to consider these issues and thus instill the understanding of the constitution and its interpretation. We should be teaching students that laws are often interpreted differently by different people. It also teaches that the interpretation of each of the ammendments changes with changes within our society. We need to help them understand the importance of the judicial portion of our government. Look at how few understand the problems with much of what was done by President Bush during his terms of office. I think it is funny that we talk about the establishment clause in schools, yet fail to challenge all of the public dollars which are spent by our national government officials in this area. We always look to the schools to solve our social problems and as battle grounds for our political and philosophical beliefs. I am just thankful that we live in a country where we can express our beliefs and engage in debates like this concerning when and where these expressions may occur.

  10. I’d share some of my most egregious examples, but don’t have time to joust with our pal from Cooperstown.

    Therefore, I’d like to raise a serious secular issue.

    How much time and resources did it take to create that Deerpark video greeting? Was it created at the public’s expense?

  11. I’d share some of my most egregious examples, but don’t have time to joust with our pal from Cooperstown.

    Therefore, I’d like to raise a serious secular issue.

    How much time and resources did it take to create that Deerpark video greeting? Was it created at the public’s expense?

  12. Staying on the Down Low Reply September 26, 2010 at 8:02 am

    So I don’t want your prize or any further attention to my comment because it might get me fired—and I’ve missed the submission date by 2 years—-but I’ve got two doozies for you that I thought you might want to share with your students in your Ed Leadership courses:

    How about the year that my principal read the story of Jesus, Mary and Joesph looking for a spot in the manger on Christmas night straight from the book of Luke to the entire student body of our public school before our holiday band concert began.

    Or how about the same principal reading a devotional about how America would rise from the ashes of the World Trade Center towers the same way that Jesus rose from the dead over the intercom on the first anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy?

    Would either of those been in competition for first prize?

    It was amazing to look at our multicultural population—we’ve got significant Jewish, Muslim, Hindi and Mormon populations at our school who are drawn to the temples for each religion that are within 5 miles of our school—during each of those violations.

    Talk about feeling alienated.

    Staying on the Down Low….

  13. I am YEARS behind in regards to commenting on this post. But as a music educator who has on one occasion had to deal with this issue, I could not resist.

    I was teaching in a charter school near Grand Rapids, Michigan and had planned a Christmas musical – complete with drama, staging, props, etc. – that hit every December holiday I knew of. We had songs to celebrate a secular Christmas, a faith-focused Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and La Fiesta de las Posadas. Of all the songs we did, only one got me any grief – the faith-based Christmas one. Granted, Kwanzaa is not religious holiday which automatically made it “safe”. But no one raised so much as an eyebrow over the other songs (both the Hanukkah and Fiesta songs are heavily tied to faith traditions). I had three parents that complained that I included a faith-based song.

    At the same time, a colleague in a sister charter school ran into a parent who raised such a stink – running to the media, hiring a lawyer, etc. – that this particular music teacher removed ALL holiday songs from the winter concert. I mean there were not even any secular holiday songs. This same parent protested, saying she wanted songs about the winter solstice (don’t know of any!) and songs about the “traditional” Christmas characters. The music teacher said that such a concert would be a prejudicial act by touting only one particular groups view of the holiday. The school board and the administration backed the teacher. This parent actually took the case to court and lost. The judge agreed with the teacher that what the parent wanted was just as biased as a strictly sacred music concert would have been.

    Over the years I have taught choral music from middle school through high school and general music K-8. I also happen to be married to a man who is a Pastor in an American Baptist Church. I have included secular songs in my concerts but have also included songs that speak of the religious side of Christmas. My understanding of the establishment clause is that NO law is to be made regarding religion – either that only one is government approved or that one is illegal. It seems to me that completely banning all religious references at the holidays is violating the establishment clause every bit as much as only mentioning the religious side of the holiday. With the exception of those three parents I mentioned above, I never caught much flack for programs like “Christmas Celebrations from Around the World” (including both sacred and secular songs) and “Christmas Through the Years” (again, sacred and secular pieces). It seems that some people are seeking an “all or nothing” solution and completely banning any and all faith expressions at school violates the establishment clause. Don’t get me wrong – I do not want administrator led or teacher led prayer times nor do I advocate the reading of scripture at school concerts. When it comes to the issue of faith in school, people love to quote the first part of the establishment clause – “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion” – but we often ignore the second half – “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Are there lines teachers must be careful about crossing? Of course! But the establishment clause clearly states that the goal is balance – neither favoring nor banning the exercise of a particular faith tradition.

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