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. First off–sorry in advance for what will undoubtedly be a post of ridiculous length. I’ve been monitoring this discussion from school where I can read but not post because of internet blocking “technologies.” Our entire district also blocks wikipedia, all wiki’s, most blogs, yahoo (yes, yahoo, especially yahoo answers)and plenty of other sites.

    Matthew: I’ve really appreciated your prospective throughout the day and think that you’ve done a good job forcing us to distinguish between secular trappings and religious trappings. I thought that your mention of spirituals was a bit off base and using it to prove political/social agenda was a stretch–I see your point but reject the overall conclusion.

    Your most recent counter to the post about the messiah definition seems also to be a reach. Messiah in 140 character tweet: One who is anticipated as, regarded as, or professes to be a savior or liberator.

    While the definition mentioned in the incident doesn’t specifically say, “oh, by the way, if you don’t believe this you’re going to hell,” defending it as innocuous and not a somewhat blatant attempt at circumventing the EC is wishful thinking. You’re overall (all day long) point has been that the EC is misinterpreted and over-enforced and I think that holds; this is a poor example of such a time and seems a pretty legit . . . abuse is the wrong word, but . . . abuse. If the messiah incident isn’t, then what is?

    I have some things that have happened in my school that I’d like to submit to the jury and discuss. Do these examples violate the Establishment Clause:
    1. A school-wide Christmas assembly, during the school day, where the school choir sings songs in praise of Christ the savior’s birth.
    2. The superintendent sending out a letter to all school employees asking them to “remember the reason for the season.”
    3. Praying in Christ’s name at school board meetings.

  2. I think the discussion is one worth having, but the real intent of the establishment clause is what is in question here. To totally exclude religion and the discussion of it was not the intent nor really a good educational practice. We need to teach tolerance and strive to help our students understand exactly why both religious and secular holidays exist. We need to help them understand exactly why the establishment clause was put into place and engage them in discussions like the one we are having here.
    As far as christian music being popular among high school music teachers probably revolves more around the fact that much of the choral music available is written for religious celebrations. Historically churches have been patrons to many of our most accomplished composers. It would be hardly fair to say that students should not sing Handel’s Messiah because it is of a religious nature. It is truly a wonderful piece of work just as the art work on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel is often used in art classes and Greek myths, religious in nature, are not used in literature classes.

  3. I see immediately that I made an error. Greek myths, in my opinion, should be allowed to be used in our literature classes. I really think that in the study of various areas around the world segments of religious texts which have substantially influenced the cultural development there should be part of the curriculum. If we had a better understanding of religions other than those we were raised in we may have avoided the majority of global conflicts which blemish human history.

  4. Well, this has been an interesting thread, almost guaranteeing that Scott will do it again next year.

    Where to start …

    First, never been called a CASTLEr before. That was sort of cool.

    Second, love, love, love religion issues. Stale jurisprudence … hardly. Does this thread seem stale to you? … this is why I love the law.

    Third, I am going to back up Scott here not because I am a CASTLEr, but because in reality we do tread on the Establishment Clause this time of year. Now, perhaps one is a big Free Exercise Clause person and weights individual protection more heavily than government establishment, but among law scholars there is there little doubt that this is the time of year when the Establishment Clause is at its most vulnerable against societal norms. Schools as a part of society also have to tread this fine line and (a) some cross over willing, (b) some cross over unintentionally, (c) some cross over unknowingly, and (d) a great deal don’t cross over at all. Keeping a watchful eye on these issues this time of year, however, is a good idea and I think it was a good post for discussion and education purposes.

    Fourth, Matthew … the context of the Messiah definition made it pretty clear to me at least – sorry I didn’t communicate that better. Its perfectly acceptable to question my judgment on this though (argument is a good thing in law), so thanks for the thoughts. What got me was the “savior” stuff and the tie in with Christmas. What does Messiah have to do with Christmas. What does being born in a manger have to do with being a Messiah? The word Messiah has much more to do with Easter, one would think. The person was just using the Christmas season as a reason to highlight some of her beliefs by using a “big” word that this person went ahead and wrote their own definition for in a way that communicated to the students that Christmas is about Jesus and Jesus is the Messiah. That is exactly what I was talking about earlier. This time of year people feel emboldened to say and do things they wouldn’t at other times of the year. From a pastor’s perspective, that’s great. From a school lawyer’s perspective, that’s bad. Btw, I would have been fine with the definition you linked to. Pointing out that Jesus is considered a Messiah is fine – it was all the other stuff that crossed the line.

    Fifth, @ Chris E – All violate it in my opinion without knowing more context. #1 I don’t mind the Christmas assembly, I do mind the songs praising Christ in front of a captive audience. It would depend on the song – this could be a close call. Silent Night is historical and okay. Christ is Born Today … probably not okay. #2 The “remember the reason for the season” is just a pretext … we all know what that means and it is a pretty coercive statement to school employees that the superintendent is endorsing/supporting a belief that Christmas is about Christ and a good Christian employee would keep that in mind. That is some of the worst violations in my mind. #3 – Pretty clear violation – check out this case:

    Let’s get some more … this is fun (and educational for me too).

  5. My daughter’s public school chorus performed a concert for parents this week. She was required to be there or be penalized with a lower grade.

    The choral director chose the songs; Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, and a song sung in Hebrew called Erev Shel Shoshanim. It comes from the biblical Song of Songs. They also sang White Christmas.

    The performance was entitled “Winter Concert” but the music selection seemed pretty secular to me. Is this a violation?

  6. Here is my submission for egregious violations – Deer Park ISD’s Technology Department Xmas message.

    I’d like to point out that thanks to your Bah-Humbug! Behavior, Scott, we eschewed electronic greeting cards in my own office, embracing instead personal warm wishes and “have a restful winter break!”

    Take care,
    Miguel Guhlin

  7. @Miguel: Dude, no Bah-Humbug about it. I’m trying to keep you and your team (and others) from getting sued and/or losing your jobs…

  8. Uh, do I have the winning entry, Scott?

    And, as to losing job, I haven’t seen/heard of anyone in Texas losing their job over Xmas greeting cards.

    Enlighten us.


  9. You’ve got a pretty strong entry there, Miguel. We’ll see what rolls in between now and Dec 23!

  10. I see nothing wrong with the video Miguel – actually, I thought it was awesome. I don’t really have a problem with the word Christmas … it is very much a secular part of our society and I certainly don’t think wishing someone a Merry Christmas is an Establishment Clause violation. Its when it goes beyond just the “Merry Christmas” and actually starts to become religious that things get hairy. Say in the background of each of those spots in the video you put religious imagery like the manger and the wise men and baby Jesus and chapel. That might make the video a violation … but like most people you know better than to take a school district video and fill it full of religious images. That’s really all the Establishment Clause is looking for – a common sense separation of church and state. By-products of religion that have become elements of our standard society are fine (check out my post on yoga:, it is when attempts are made to make those by-products overtly religious that problems come up. Btw, I just wished my graduate student a Merry Christmas as he left for the holidays. And, Merry Christmas to you too Miguel. I enjoyed our disagreements this year.

  11. In my small rural school division is SW Virginia a prayer was said while everyone held hands at the School Board Office’s annual Christmas potluck and gift exchange. It was said by a minister who is on staff in the school division, as well. It’s the norm here, and has happened for the past 4 potlucks that I’ve attended. Yes, the prayer ended with the phrase, “in Jesus’s Name, Amen.” I guess the excludes other gods, eh?

  12. We have two issues here. The first is the legal one. The second is one of inclusiveness. Justin, I think the Deer Park e-card violates both. If I’m a non-Christian student, family, or employee in that district, I’m guessing that I’m feeling pretty marginalized right now…

  13. Resolved: the secularization (I don’t even know if that’s a word, but you know what I mean) of Christmas is the result of numerous, uncoordinated efforts to legitimize the hegemony of Christianity.

    Now debate…

  14. Are you serious? Is this where we are? Really? I’m devout in my faith, and I DO respect other faiths. I believe Jesus, our Messiah, was similar in his care for, and respect of others; however, he did point to a truth, but I digress.
    The stark reality is that in our pc-driven, abandon everything that’s been practiced culture, we are so very quick to grind axes agaist Christians. Wear you hijab, star & crescent, star of David, or any other symbol at my school, and all is okay. Brandish a cross, wreath, tree or reindeer and incur a wrath, or at the very least a glare over the glasses and down the nose, accompanied by a hissed admonition that it’s not okay.
    As for where my kids attend public school… the overwhelming majority of kids are white Christians, yet the walls are adorned with Kwanzaa candle holders (excuse my ignorance) and menorahs. Again, better not mention the C word or anything that accompanies it.
    It seems as if every non-Christian Tom, Dick & Harry wants equality as they see it, as long as Christians don’t assert any right of their own. So, I guess since the season begins the 21st, and the break occurs around then it’s “Winter Break,” for now. Just wait until the South American students chime up because back home it’s summer for them.
    Aw heck, I’ll just opt out of the whole thing and enjoy “Break”.
    BTW Merry Christmas to all; may we each discover that differences were put aside about 2000 years ago – we’re just too caught up in ourselves to acquiesce.

  15. Sure, reindeer, Santa, decorated conifer trees, bells, wreaths, etc. are not each in themselves necessarily Christian and how they relate to Christianity is through culture. However, any symbol or icon can be interpreted as having a different meaning than the way it is used. A swastika is just eight lines, there is nothing overtly hateful or racist about lines are there? A cross has had many other meanings and uses other than the Christian attributes we usually give it. A painting is composed of shapes, colors, lines, and textures that each individually don’t necessarily have any meaning. Meaning is enhanced by their combination into recognizable patterns. A square could be many things but paint it red and you narrow the possible interpretations. Add other elements and you further eliminate possible interpretations. The same is true for all forms of expression, including language itself.

    Fact is, all religious imagery, save religious icons such as those used in the Orthodox Christian Church or statuary used in the Hindu religion, are cultural and not theological. To appropriate a metaphor from Vicky Davis, you can’t write “I hate you” on a cupcake, give it to someone and say, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a cupcake.” Over time, cultural icons associated with a particular religion or religious holiday become part of that group’s doctrine whether or not that doctrine is written down or formally recognized. The same is true today when images such as reindeer, Santa, decorated conifer trees, bells, wreaths, etc. are used in combination. The meaning of these images are even more defined when you couple them with Christmas related songs such as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” “Here Comes Santa Clause,” “Jingle Bells,” etc. and practices such as gift giving.

  16. Alright, this is not a position I would have predicted that I would take when this started, but I do think you can’t take this Establishment thing too far and not allow anyone to say Merry Christmas in a public entity. I am not sure how I feel about ceremonial deism as a legal theory, but it is an important part of our Constitutional jurisprudence since at least the 1980’s and Rehnquist’s arrival on the Court, whether I like it or not. I agree with you Jon “that secularization of Christmas is the result of numerous, uncoordinated efforts to legitimize the hegemony of Christianity.” But, tell me a society that didn’t systematically attempt to secularize their religious views? Don’t you think there is a different type of secularization going on in Israel? I don’t know how you stop that when 80% of the population is of similar religious views. With that kind of dominance of Christianity, some things will secularize no matter what. This is even compounded by the fact that there was even higher levels of Christian secularization when this country was founded. MARYland — for instance. So, I have mixed feelings about it, but the Supreme Court has made it pretty clear that some former religious elements enter the American mainstream and thus do not violate the Establishment Clause. “Merry Christmas” certainly seems to fall within that category. If nothing else, we can use evidence from the President’s Christmas Cards. Check out what George Bush sent around in 2001:

  17. A few thoughts, Justin.

    I didn’t assert the secularization statement as my opinion. I threw it out there for debate.

    Second, just because the Supreme Court has allowed “former religious elements” to “enter the American mainstream” doesn’t mean much to me. The men and women that have served on the Court aren’t exactly representative of our nation’s religious diversity.

    Third, yes, there probably is some amount of “secularization” going on in Israel, but so what? If it is happening there, maybe it’s not right there either.

    Fourth, your 80% argument doesn’t work. The U.S. is a constitutional republic. According to Wikipedia, “Constitutional republics are a deliberate attempt to diminish the perceived threat of majoritarianism, thereby protecting dissenting individuals and minority groups from the ‘tyranny of the majority’ by placing checks on the power of the majority of the population.”

    Finally, and this isn’t necessarily to you specifically, but I REALLY think we’d do well to direct people to the (various) legal standards around the Establishment Clause. I say that because so many of the commenters here suggest that we’ve gone way over the top and that there can be no mention of the “C” word. Nobody in their right mind, or nobody who has any semblance of intellectual honesty (to use a Tabor term), believes that to be the case. I know the “line” (or lines) is (are) a bit hazy, but…Going back to my previous point, of our form of government, Wikipedia cites Scheb who wrote that, “[It is] not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law.” The key word there is TEMPERED.

  18. Good stuff Jon, and I agree with most of your points. I also agree that we might be witnessing a little misinformation getting into the schools that Christmas is somehow banned, which pretty clearly is not the case, especially not underneath this current Supreme Court.

    I don’t think that 80% should get to set all the rules, but they are certainly going to dictate societal elements. A lot of that the Supreme Court has no control over anyway. Whether the Supreme Court, Congress, the Executive and the schools talk about Christmas or not, Christmas is still going to dictate society this time of year. If the law is totally non-reflective of that reality, you would see a lot more people like Matthew Tabor on here complaining. Schools are supposed to be reflective of communities, right? While I am certainly of the opinion that our Constitution should protect the rights of the minority, you also can not simply ignore the preferences of the vast majority. Our Constitution is so stable in some ways because we do not ignore the majority.

    So, don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that we should eliminate or reduce minority rights, but I am also aware you can’t just ignore the wishes of large segments of the society – and 80% of our society would like to wish each other a Merry Christmas. I think the push-back that Matthew engaged in earlier in this thread illustrates that point. Are there elements of coercion in that, sure. Can we live with that level of coercion to pacify the majority? I think we can.

  19. Justin,
    Schools or school officials can’t hang a sign that says “Merry Christmas,” but why can’t we wish each other, individually, a Merry Christmas?

  20. It would seem that the majority of the issue is in what context a “Merry Christmas” is expressed. If an individual does it, it is freedom of speech, no? If done by the “authority” it is deemed to be an infringement on another person’s rights. Does this sound like student led spontaneous prayer at graduation? OK, let’s not go there this time, but same concept. Is someone forcing their religious belief on another by saying, “Merry Christmas” any more than one ultimately avoids the same by saying “Happy Holidays” and thus could be considered to be promoting atheism?

    Respecting others’ beliefs is essential, and it should be the base for our lives as educators. I have trouble believing that this level of pettiness has a foundation if we truly respect the fact that the US (and the world) is not a cookie cutter replication system of ideals (even with the delicious reindeer and Santa sugar cookies with lots of red, green, and white frosting…mmmm). We have different views, beliefs, morals, etc. – get over it, deal with it – but don’t prevent any one group from expressing happiness and cheer in a respectful manner. If someone wished me “Good Bloggindervin” I think I’d smile and say, “Thanks” instead of questioning whether I was being sized up for conversion to a “high-tech Internet religion.”

    Similarly, we have guidelines that help us with organizations using our building, for example, that would allow equal access for the local scouts, firemen, church, animal shelter, or other non-profit organizations. The point here is that the building is equally open whether I, as the holder of the magical key, agree to the particular philosophy held by each group or not.

    By the way, Happy Bloggindervin!

  21. Point of clarification, y’all. The Establishment Clause is not about respecting the rights of individuals (“respecting others beliefs” is a Free Exercise Clause issue, not an Establishment Clause issue). The Est. Clause is about (once again) tempering majority rule; it’s about limiting actions of government or government officials. The two religion clauses were part of the First Amendment because we dissociated ourselves from England largely on the grounds of religious freedom. We wanted to be free to exercise our religion individually or even collectively in our private spaces, but we did NOT want government/state officials to favor or endorse any particular religion in the public sphere.

    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. You can spread happiness and cheer in lots of wonderful ways, and if you feel you want to say “Merry Christmas” you are absolutely free to do so as long as you don’t do so in a way that amounts to endorsement and/or that puts any one individual in a coerced position of accepting a religiously entangled message.

    I fear that those of us charged with facilitating learning of the issues around religion in schools are not doing our job well enough.

  22. To your last point, Jon, I totally agree. I think this thread has made clear there are large amounts of misinformation out there. I do partially think that is due to the Supreme Court’s crazy multi-part balancing (we’ll know it when we see it) test. Even if I wanted to, there really are no bright lines that I can pass along to my students. Add to that the media conflict over this issue with liberal sources running stories about treading on the Establishment Clause and conservative sources running stories about government limiting people’s religious freedom and you got one big mess where no one really knows where the lines are – not even supposed “scholars” like myself.

    Thus, on your earlier point, I agree you can certainly say Merry Christmas as an individual working in the school to another individual. But, I am not so sure you can’t hang a Merry Christmas sign too. Under my reading of case law, I don’t see a problem with that. I think that the “standard” parts of Christmas (such as a Merry Christmas banner in school) are “established” enough in our society that the Courts would determine them elements of society and not elements of religion – thus, the Establishment Clause is not implicated. So, a Christmas tree is fine. A nativity is not. A Merry Christmas banner is fine, a “Christ is Born, Hallelujah” banner is not. Of course, that doesn’t really help clarify anything for schools, but I don’t think school officials should be afraid to say Merry Christmas either individually, or in a collective way such as a banner. Or, as is the case a block away from my house, on their sign in front of school. If ceremonial deism is a legally endorsed theory, which it clearly is, it seems Christmas is the perfect example of something that has moved beyond religion. Now, I think the exceptions under ceremonial deism are pretty limited, but there is enough in my mind that has been excepted under this legal theory that schools can adequately pacify both sides of the religion fight.

    Btw, I don’t really think we are helping the misinformation problem. I might be making it worse, actually. Sorry for that.

  23. Justin (and others),
    The First Amendment Center (as I’m sure you know Justin) is a pretty fair/balanced organization on these matters. I would encourage you all to read what they write about religious holidays and public schools (

    I’ve quoted the important/relevant part below:

    “Any teacher or administrator should ask herself the following questions as she plans holiday activities:

    1. Do I have a distinct educational purpose in mind? If so, what is it? It should not be the purpose of public schools to celebrate or observe religious holidays.
    2. If I use holidays as an opportunity to teach about religion, am I balanced and fair in my approach? If I teach about Christmas and Easter, for example, do I also teach about non-Christian holidays?
    3. Does the planned activity have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion? Does it, for example, promote one faith over another or even religion in general? Remember that the school’s approach should be academic, not devotional. It is never appropriate for public schools to proselytize.

    A common misconception is that it is permissible to promote Christianity at Christmas, provided that other religions receive similar treatment at other times. For example, some teachers may try to justify celebrating Christmas by celebrating Hanukkah. This approach is wrong. First, Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday and should not be equated with Christmas, one of the two most important holidays in the Christian year. Second, one violation of the First Amendment does not justify another. If it is wrong to promote religion in the public schools at Christmas, it is wrong every other day of the year. Instead of “balancing” Christmas with Hanukkah, teachers should work to ensure that all holiday activities focus on objective study about religion, not indoctrination.”

    No chance a Christmas tree is OK. NONE.

    Tag, you’re it.

  24. Sorry, Justin, but I’m not buying that schools – which are particularly sensitive environments because they serve minors and not adults – can hang a ‘Merry Christmas’ banner in their foyer (or send a Merry Christmas card from the tech department) simply because aspects of the holiday have become secularized. I think that’s a big-time loser in court. Why don’t you ask your former school law profs if they agree with you?

    I notice that no one’s taken up my inclusiveness concern (and by that I mean schools’ moral, ethical, professional, and societal responsibility to provide welcoming learning environments for ALL kids). Perhaps because when it comes to school-sponsored Christmas greetings that’s a loser also…

  25. So, your argument fellas is that ceremonial deism does not exist in schools? Because, I can’t think of a more apt example of ceremonial deism than a Christmas tree. There is a Christmas tree in the Whitehouse, the Supreme Court sells Christmas tree ornaments, there is a Christmas tree in front of the U.S. Capitol, but your telling me that while all those federal entities are showing off their 30 ft. Christmas trees, the federal constitution says we can’t put one in a school? Nothing about the Christmas tree screams religion to me. It is a tree with lights and glass balls, what about that says Jesus is born in a student’s mind? Just because it started from a Christian holiday does not mean it still represents Christianity – which is why this is not even an Establishment Clause issue in the first place. We are not balancing here, we are not doing anything because it is not a religious symbol it is an American symbol at least in the eyes of the Courts. And, no Merry Christmas cards either because the word Christmas itself? Thus, if you are throwing the Christmas trees out and we can’t use the word Christmas collectively, what stays? So, I assume that answer would be nothing is left – that there is no place for ceremonial deism or Christmas for that matter in schools.

    But, then I ask you why we can teach the planets (Mars, Jupiter, etc.) because those grew out of a Greek and then Roman religion? So, surely there is a place for some ceremonial deism in schools, no? So, why not for Christianity? Why not for Hinduism? Seriously, in the example I linked to earlier, would you throw out yoga because it started in a Hindu tradition? Is this just a majority/minority issue? We should always curb the majority’s religious influence?

    So, since I am already hinting at it, let’s just go to the endpoint here … why do we even have a Christmas break? If there is no ceremonial deism in schools or at least not ceremonial deism based off of Christianity, we should go to school on Christmas, should we not? Since 1870 Christmas has been a federal holiday as deemed by statute (5 U.S.C. 6103), so should we declare that statute unconstitutional? Maybe we should put in a schools exception? Taking the biggest break from school of the year to celebrate the federal holiday of Christmas is MUCH worse in my mind than either a tree or a Christmas card.

    So, I just don’t see the caselaw out there that says we got to get Christmas totally out of schools. We need to keep Christianity out of the schools, but Christianity and Christmas in my mind are two separate things. Christmas can be BOTH secular and religious and the predominately secular elements of Christmas are fine with me and the predominately religious elements are not. Christmas tree = secular. Images of the baby Jesus = religious. Maybe my former school law profs would disagree with me, but that’s their interpretation and this is mine. Listen, I am not personally claiming that I am fond of this interpretation, it is just my interpretation of the law as it stands right now after 20 years of a conservative Supreme Court that has consistently upheld ceremonial deism across all elements of society. Ethically, yeah, I am not recommending putting Christmas trees in classrooms, but I am not a principal in rural Virginia either. Our principals need to know where the line is because they got lots of pressure on both sides, and in my opinion the legal line (the democratically established line) allows for the secular elements of Christmas to be in schools. I could certainly be wrong, though. It wouldn’t be the first time. But, at least I have the First Amendment Center that Jon cited on my side: “Interestingly, a majority of the justices has stated that Christmas trees, unlike creches and menorahs, have attained a secular status in our society and can be displayed standing alone. This does not mean that schools should erect Christmas trees during the holiday season, but only that they probably can.” — That is exactly my position. I am not saying schools should have Christmas trees as a moral principal, but they probably can as a practical one.

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

  27. 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?

  28. @ 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!”

  29. @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.

  30. 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!

  31. 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.”

  32. 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!

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

  34. 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.

  35. 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?

  36. 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?

  37. My History Teacher Mentioning Jewish, Christianity, and Roman Catholic over 100 times! – Dead Serious!

    – David Runneals

  38. Hope everyone enjoys their “winter holiday”. If you want to scare your teachers try this:

  39. … are you kidding me? Rhetorical – I know it’s not a joke.

    Will Dr. Becker, J.D. manage to type “Christmas” instead of “CHRISTmas?” That’s the $64,000 question.

    By the way, your unhinged bias shows when you only cite Christmas as being around the corner. Golly gee, it’s almost as if the venom is spewed in one particular direction.

  40. For the past three weeks one of our teachers has been piping Christmas music over his computer speakers almost nonstop, much of which was blatantly Christian (as opposed to the near secular nature of many holiday songs). Then this week our elementary school put on a “holiday” program that had nothing but Christmas and Christmas related songs. On stage there was even a Christmas tree. The students were directed to wear Christmas colors (White, Green, and Red) for the program. Our elementary school hallway is full of images of reindeer which in itself does not violate anything here but it certainly suggests that one religion’s folklore is more accepted than any other. We even have a Christmas tree in our commons area with Christmas wishes for needy families written on angels that hang on the tree for people to take and grant (Nothing for our needy families that don’t celebrate Christmas). Last year I witnessed multiple Christmas parties occurring in classrooms as well. We will see next week if this is an annual ritual. Clearly some or all of these fail the endorsement test.

  41. Ahhh!

    Christmas wishes for needy families!

    Well done spotting the subtle suggestion that these Christian zealots want to spend December 25th beating needy pagans into a bloody pulp with their well-thumped Bibles – while passing on good tidings only to fellow believers, that is.

    You folks need to start by admitting that Christmas has been a Federal Holiday for 138 years now. If you think that violates the Establishment Clause, that’s where you ought to begin your protest – not raising blood pressure over a construction paper reindeer in a school hallway.

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

  42. I teach in a high school. Today we have a holiday assembly with the band/choir and all students must attend. They play again tonight. Most of the music will be Rudolph and Frosty but their will be traditional Christmas as well. We only have less than 1% of non-white students, but have many with divers religious beliefs. Many students would rather have time in their classes. In a week with constant disruptions, kids are feeling frazzled. Teaching is tough already without adding the disruptions. How many high schools still hold assemblies?

    We decorated our doors for christmas. Part of a spirit contest that runs through the school year. Some teachers have trees – though they make Chemistry themed ornaments and snowflakes using reactions.

    There will be parties. My kids have asked. I said no – good reason this year – scheduled dissections and microscope work up until Christmas.

  43. Yesterday, our faculty was forced to sit through a 2-hour luncheon, during which our administration hosted an open-mic talent session. 7 different faculty members sang religious Christmas songs (and not all of them very well.) During the singing, the cafeteria frequently broke out with “Amens” and “Tell it brother/sister.” It was really painful;; I felt like I was at church. My snarky colleagues and I joked about volunteering to sing the Dradle song.

  44. Louise’s point is the strongest so far – that some frivolous holiday events are distractions from valuable, and in some schools, very badly needed, classroom time.

    But I reject ms’s testimonial. The setting she describes is an open event – presumably any show of ‘talent’ would have been acceptable. The free responses were not coerced and were of the audience’s own volition.

    ms jokes that she could have given a rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel” – a song which I learned as a child in my rural, public school, and a song which I otherwise would not have encountered. She could have performed it but she chose not to. Instead, she joked with colleagues and then, as we can see above, posted about it on the CASTLE blog. That she was held against her will without any chance to opt out could have been challenged – and likely upheld.

    There are egregious examples of political and religious coercion that exist in public schools. We’ve got urban legends, trusted testimonials and, in some cases, video evidence. No one denies that.

    But the examples cited above – including CASTLE’s bizarre, intellectually/socially misguided mission here – fail to recognize the difference between the indoctrination of values and common cultural literacy.

    It would be ridiculous to suggest that spending time on songs of the American Civil Rights movement and its social protest is a violation of the Establishment Clause even when those songs are heavily religious [and Christian, no less!]. Take, for example, “We Shall Overcome,” a staple of that era. Our jurists here fail to protest that such demonstrations of our culture are really religious evangelism. In that example they recognize a difference between culture and indoctrination – and they’ve reached the proper conclusion. Even so, there’s no reason to pretend that their selective discrimination is not based on their political and social preferences.

    They are, in a phrase, intellectually dishonest. If they were truly committed to tying these commonplace celebrations of Christmas to that list of Establishment Clause violations, they’d plop Joel Osteen and Rosa Parks in the same category.

    Mr. Anderson and the CASTLErs – as well as future commenters, surely – seem to suggest that celebrating, or even recognizing, these cultural elements constitutes a rejection of all others. This simply isn’t true. That suggestion isn’t any more valid than if one attempted to make the case that our celebration of American Independence Day every July 4th carried with it a contemptuous attitude toward countries with different histories or forms of government.
    There’s a reason that most calendars include the Commonwealth countries’ Boxing Day, and it isn’t because we’re filled with hate toward celebrations that aren’t our own.

    This contest is glib, ideologically-driven tripe [though I’ll admit that a little bit of stale jurisprudence was ground and sprinkled on top]. I may have to start a similar competition.

    Unlike this event, there won’t be a December 23rd deadline, and I won’t bother to wish anyone luck. It’s clear that the education world doesn’t need it this time around.

    Merry Christmas, folks – and if you celebrate something else, or nothing at all, may you wish me a merry one of those. I’ll happily celebrate it with you.

  45. Can I post one I already dealt with here in Kentucky? I won’t take it into consideration.

    A public school here has a word of the day, which is a definition of a particular, pre-chosen word. Well, a couple weeks ago the word was “Messiah.” 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.” No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions. It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day. My question was, 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?

    Anyway, I know that is not going to qualify as the “most egregious,” but nevertheless I thought it was a cute violation.

  46. 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. 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. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I hope that won’t keep you from participating in next year’s BlogBall, though!

  47. Honestly, we should just take all celebrations of anything out of government sponsored stuff. No government sponsored holiday trees, no government sponsored celebrations of the 4th of July. Nothing at all! I’m not joking either. I mean, drop the whole friggin issue.

    If a government sponsored place (e.g. government schools) want to be closed on 25 Dec, then close on 25 Dec and call it winter break (if you even need to call it anything at all).

  48. The courts have upheld schools’ reasonable accommodations of students’ religious beliefs. This includes religious holidays. The primary reason Christmas is a federal and school holiday is because no one would show up to work/school. In certain parts of the country, the same thing is true for other religious holidays as well (e.g., Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, some Jewish holidays, and so on). The school district can decide when enough kids would be out to warrant simply making the day a school holiday (or teacher workday).

    As the courts have noted, the holiday accommodation is different than having students and non-Christian employees immersed in Christian-oriented holiday celebrations at public schools. School leaders have a legal obligation to protect the religious rights of all public school children and employees. Those rights include not being subjected to participation in the religious observances of other faiths. Non-Christian families are subjected each year to sit through Christian-themed concerts, decorations, displays, classroom activities, etc. It’s illegal and thus improper.

    Now, where this all gets tricky is the secular (i.e., nonreligious) aspects of a religious day like Christmas. Are reindeer religious symbols? Not exactly but they are associated with Christmas. Are trees decorated with garlands, lights, and balls religious symbols? Not really but, again, they are associated with Christmas. Santa Claus? Christmas stockings? Wreaths? You get the picture. At some point the collective weight of ‘secular but associated with Christmas’ symbolry tips over toward favoring Christmas. When does that point occur? Who knows since it’s highly contextual. But it’s got to be frustrating for many non-Christian students and families.

    So that’s the rub, school leaders. You’ve got to balance the holiday observance desires of the probably-Christian majority of your community while simultaneously respecting the rights of other non-Christian community members. I think it’s hard to do that in a Christmas-tinged school building. Thus the contest, to highlight some of the more egregious violations of the religious neutrality principle of the Establishment Clause.

    Keep the comments coming. Good (and confusing) stuff here!

Leave a Reply

Switch to our mobile site