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

    – David Runneals

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

  3. … 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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).

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. @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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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…

  19. 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”.

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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. @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!

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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).

  29. 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?

  30. 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

  31. @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…

  32. 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.


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

  34. 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.

  35. 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?

  36. 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…

  37. 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…

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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:

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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?

  44. 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!

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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…

  49. 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.

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