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. I realize I’m an international reader (sorry! I know I’m not really invited to this discussion) but I have to ask: how are red, white, and green colors and reindeer related to the religious background of Christmas? Aren’t those representative of the secular, commercial aspects of Christmas? They are about as representative of a religious celebration as Frosty the Snowman is as a prophet. C’mon… seriously?

    Let’s admit — there are really two Christmas traditions: one is religious and the other is not. Both are cultural. Perhaps the secular traditions evolved over many hundreds of years from the religious ones (e.g., the tradition of gift-giving) but I think most Christians will tell you that’s all just a small and relatively insignificant part of the *real* meaning behind Christmas.

  2. If these egregious and not so egregious violations are indeed actionable, then those victimized should seek legal redress.

    Doing so would provide children with an up close and personal lesson about law and religion in a democracy. It would also publicly honor the legacy of those from America’s past who understood that standing up for what you believe and speaking truth to power entails real sacrifice.

    It’s easy to be concerned about an issue. It’s much harder to put yourself on the line for it. Most folks in our culture of complaint would rather sit around and play “gotcha” than get busy making a difference. I don’t know what point there is in encouraging that.

  3. @clieneck: It sounds like you’re saying that concerned non-Christian families should stand up and sue school districts that are violating the Constitution. Of course that occurs sometimes – that’s where our case law comes from. But if that is indeed what you’re saying, shouldn’t we instead be educating school leaders on how to avoid this problem rather than subjecting both families and school systems to the time, financial, and emotional costs of lengthy litigation simply to enforce rights that already have been enunciated by past court decisions?

  4. First of all, I agree with Adrienne that there are parts of the season that are purely cultural – frosty, rudolph, garland, colored lights. This is the stuff encountered at every shopping mall or place of business one enters this time of year. That’s tough to ignore in any context, school included.

    Second, as far as responding to the original post, where do I begin? We’ve had time taken out of class for 1/2 hour Operation Christmas Child presentations, 30 minutes per week for choral practice with the community choir (99% religious song list), “gifts” delivered in the middle of class by a local church which included fruit, candy, bibles, DVD’s about the story of Jesus, CD’s with religious stories, beaded cross necklaces, etc.
    These are all well-meaning gestures brought to our school. However, I think that all of these activities are best operated from the base of the individual churches. I feel like our local school has become a convenient medium for them to target market most of the community.

  5. Well, of course. Dialogue is always preferable to litigation, much as diplomacy is always preferable to going to war.

    There are lots of ways parents, kids, and schools can work together to teach about religion in its historical and cultural context withouth violating the Establishment clause, and of course that is what should happen. And it is not only a matter of educating school leaders…it involves educating our school communities.

    But the way you’ve framed the contest invites a polarized response, so it shouldn’t be surprising to get a few.
    Putting the contest in its larger context, as you have in your most recent comment, might have been better done up front.

  6. Like SO many times, the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” phrase is being spun, wrung and hung out to dry…

    At that time the Consitution was written and the very reason our country was founded was due to England’s forcefulness of having a church rule the country…

    We have now taken this and spun it 180 degrees and are attempting each year more so to have the country govern the church…

    We ARE free to worship the religion of choice…

    We ARE free to say what we want – remember this was drawn when accountability and responsibility as well as the value of one’s word was taken seriously and without doubt – something serioulsy missing in today’s PC culture…

    Push this long enough and the silent majority will be screaming reverse discrimination just as affirmative action experienced not so long ago…

    The most interesting part of all this – watch them pearly gates guys, they are going to hit you in the butt when you are not recognized as God’s own…

  7. Since the actual rules had nothing to do with Christmas, I assume my example will qualify:

    For years before my husband became a junior high principal in the Bible belt, it had been an accepted practice on this campus for area youth ministers to periodically bring a pizza or two and join “their” kids (and their kids’ friends, who of course were lured by the pizza) for lunch in the school cafeteria…no advance notice to parents required. This in spite of the fact that anyone ELSE who came to eat with students had to be on each individual child’s parent-approved list of visitors. That rule did not apply to the youth ministers. They only had to SAY they were the youth minister from such-and-such church, and they were admitted.

    My husband, considering not only the potential violation of the Establishment Clause, but also the danger to students in light of the loose (or lack of) identification procedure, stopped this practice and you would have thought he was the anti-Christ! (He is not…we are active Episcopalians…but we would not have been thrilled to have a stranger from another church attempting to lure our children away, either!)

    Teachers, students, parents, and even the district administration were appalled that he would take such an “un-Christian” stance. His response was something along the lines of “Are you prepared to allow the Wiccans down the street to send their youth minister to bring lunch to your kids?” (He was not kidding, by the way…several Wiccan children attended his school at the time.) He was told “that will never happen”, and that he was being ridiculous.

    He was told by the administration to drop it and allow the youth ministers to come back! After he made it clear that he refused to be held culpable in any potential lawsuit, they finally conceded that each parent must put the youth minister’s NAME, not just the church name, on their child’s card as an approved visitor, and that it would be checked as for any other visitor. The youth minister must also take the pizza and the students for whom s/he is an approved visitor to a separate table to eat lunch so the students not from that church are not a “captive audience”.

  8. By the way…I realize the title is “Holiday” violation…no intending my story to qualify for the contest, just the discussion. :-)

  9. Justin,

    I’m going to parse your comment to make it a little easier.

    “The definition for Messiah was something to the effect of “in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, who is their savior and redeemer. Who came to Earth and was born in a manger and Christmas, and died to save the world’s sins.”

    The Messiah is primarily a Christian/Hebrew concept as the term originates in the Old Testament. What was given was a very specific definition – if you want to take issue with that, go ahead. My guess is that it was presented this way because of time/medium constraints. How would you define “Messiah” in a 140 character tweet?

    “No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions”

    Perhaps that’s because there aren’t as many as you might think. The Jews have yet to get theirs. The Christians recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It would have been valuable – and an inch closer to that special goal of all-things-diversity, yes? – to mention that the Koran/Islam recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, too.

    Put simply, going on about the Rastafari Messiah et al. would have covered all the bases – at the expense of time and practical concerns.

    “It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day”

    You have failed to make a case that there was an “intentional crossing of the line” in this example. I’ve just shown you why your argument is folly.

    “Messiah is fine with me to define, but why not just use an actual dictionary definition instead of making one up that turned into a definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ?”

    First, peep that definition. You’ll find that what you heard – and complained about here – isn’t different than what’s found in a dictionary.

    Second, that you saw it as a “definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ” is a deliberate misinterpretation. This time it’s a mix of dishonesty and abysmal comprehension. Unless there’s more to the situation than what you described, no sensible person would hear that and think it was evangelism. Highly-specific description that fails to take into account other relevant facets of the definition, such as the Jews waiting on their Messiah? Yes. Christian evalngelism? No.

    You folks should have spent less time in inadequate Constitutional Law courses and more time in core Western Civilization classes. It would’ve saved all of us a lot of time.

  10. Matthew,

    “I take CASTLE’s work and its practitioners seriously. This initiative, however? Not a bit.”

    After reading your four diatribes, I’m not convinced. I think you take it VERY seriously…almost personally.

  11. Dr. McLeod,

    “Matthew, the reason I used Christmas as the lens for this post is because the vast, vast majority of Establishment Clause violations regarding holiday-related displays are those related to Christmas. This is fact borne out by case law.”

    No one’s arguing that. Since the United States is overwhelmingly a Christian nation, and one that celebrates Christian holidays in secular ways as well, it’s obvious that the majority of cases will involve Christianity.

    That’s a bit of a common sense, low-hanging fruit.

    “As a school law professor, I am concerned about the religious expression, freedom, and protection rights of all school children and employees. If you want to call this “glib, ideologically-driven tripe,” so be it.”

    I don’t call that concern “glib, ideologically-driven tripe” – and suggesting that I am is a deliberate misrepresentation and delegitimization of my criticism. You may be able to get away with that with others, but not with me.

    I criticized your presentation of this initiative, not your concern to uphold the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Do not conflate the two.

    “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.”

    No, we won’t. Apologies, but opening this can of worms and then deflecting unpalatable criticism is ridiculous.

    “I hope that won’t keep you from participating in next year’s BlogBall, though!”

    Count me out on BlogBall – the scoring system is as flawed as the arguments here. I stopped logging into my team halfway through the season because it was so badly skewed. I’d love to make recommendations to fix it, but it’s fairly low on my list of priorities. Love the idea, though, and will post it on my site for others when the time comes – please remind me. I think you’re going to have a few leagues if you want it.

  12. @Matthew: Well, I’m sorry you won’t be in BlogBall next year. I think I just used the default Yahoo! stats categories last time. Any suggestions you have would be most welcome.

    I’m not trying to deflect criticism. Goodness knows I’ve received a lot here at DI over the years! The style of this post was an attempt to bring out for discussion some examples of possible EC violations and to highlight some of the most egregious ones. I specifically said that folks who weren’t sure about an incident should go ahead and post it so that we can discuss it. There’s a teaching function to this post as well as a discussion function. I’m educating from my perspective, you from yours, and so on.

    Thanks for participating in the conversation. I wish we had some more examples to discuss!

  13. 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….

  14. 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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