Walking on a Tightrope in Snow Boots: Celebrating the Holiday Season Constitutionally

Kacie Kefgen

By Kacie Kefgen, MASB Assistant Director of Labor Relations and Legal Services

DashBoard, Dec. 9, 2015

How Christmas is celebrated, or not celebrated, seems to be seasonal fodder for cable news almost every year. That recurring, sometimes heated, national dialogue is often reflected in what happens in our local communities, particularly in schools. At the same time, students and teachers are excited about the upcoming holidays (and the concurrent break), and that excitement and anticipation flows into the school building. Administrators, then, sometimes feel like they are walking a tightrope trying to ensure that the holiday decorations, concerts, parties and other celebrations do not violate the First Amendment.

On one side of that tightrope, school districts must ensure that they are not violating the Establishment Clause by seeming to endorse a particular religion. On the other side, districts must ensure they do not violate student and employee individual rights to freedom of religion, speech and expression.

Should a school simply ignore all of these holidays completely?

Not necessarily, and that is unlikely to be a realistic approach. There are plenty of ways schools can approach the holiday season in ways that are both respectful and legal.

How does an administrator know whether a school can have a certain concert, decorations, etc.?

A school’s practice is typically found not to violate the Establishment Clause so long as it:

  • Has a legitimate secular purpose;
  • Does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; and
  • Does not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.1

Seasonal decorations that are clearly secular—think snowflakes, Santa, candy canes, trees—do not violate the Establishment Clause. Even religious symbols, such as a nativity scene, menorah, or kinara, can be used (with care) if the primary purpose and effect of the display is to educate children about a variety of cultural and religious practices.

Concerts can also feature songs that have religious content, but holiday programs should not be dominated by religious music. It is best to include a variety of songs, including secular pieces, to ensure that the overall message of the concert is inclusive and neutral.

Holiday parties are permissible too and can serve as a good opportunity for children to celebrate secular aspects of the holidays through gift-giving, charity, singing and more.

How should an administrator respond when students and staff would like to celebrate the religious aspects of the holidays at school?

Schools must take care not to violate an individual’s right to express and practice their religion. Generally, this means that schools should continue to do the things they already do at every other time of year.

Just as the rest of the year, students should be allowed to pray during the holiday season so long as it does not interfere with the educational mission of the school. A student prayer group cannot skip math class to hold a prayer meeting in December, for example.

Students may wear clothing that celebrates the religious aspect of a holiday if the clothing otherwise comports with the general dress code requirements.

Falling off that tightrope, Santa?

Finally, if the district receives a concern or complaint from someone, it should try to respectfully address the concern as soon as possible. These types of issues often carry with them strong emotions, significant disruption and potentially costly litigation. If administrators are unsure of how to respond, they should consider calling us (517.327.5900) or the district’s retained legal counsel to help guide them through a prudent and respectful response.

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1Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)