By Krista Kafer firstname.lastname@example.org If you’re hitting the malls on Friday for the big post-Thanksgiving Day shopping spree, you may get a “Merry Christmas” with your purchase, but then again you may not. Some stores, it seems, insist their employees use the colorless phrase “Happy Holidays” instead.
And at school, if you’re looking forward to hearing those sweet young voices sing age-old songs at your child’s annual pageant, you may not hear the word Christmas at all. You’ll wait patiently through a string of vapid mid-19th Century jingles and a few songs about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, and then you’ll head home mystified and a little hollow. What holiday is this?
If you ask the school principal who stole Christmas, she may tell you that the law forbids religious expression of any kind in public schools. In that case, she would be wrong. Like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, the “wall of separation” that supposedly bans Christmas in public schools is a myth.
According to the Constitution, Americans are guaranteed the right to practice religion free from government intervention. Interpreting the First Amendment clause "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" the Supreme Court has said, generally speaking, that voluntary student expression and the study of religion are protected. While proselytizing and school-sanctioned or teacher-led prayers are not allowed, teaching about religion including religious art and literature, history, and religious holidays is permitted.
Religion has played a significant part in history and the arts and continues to do so in the world today. Even thoroughly secular academic experts will tell you religion belongs in a well-rounded curriculum. They say it is essential to understanding the various academic disciplines and developing cross-cultural sensitivity. The Court agrees. The late Justice William J. Brennan, in a concurring opinion in Abington v. Schempp, stated that "it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion."
There are a few guidelines for public schools. The instructional approach must be academic rather than devotional. It should neither denigrate nor promote beliefs or practices. The goal should be to teach knowledge and understanding about religions without favoring any particular faith. Instruction can include a study of central beliefs, symbols, prominent figures, and events. Students should be able to discuss their beliefs in an atmosphere free of denigration. If a student asks a teacher about his or her religious beliefs, it is permissible to give a brief answer; however, such a moment should not be used to proselytize for or against religion.
The law permits teaching about religious holidays. Instruction may include the use of religious symbols, sacred music, literature, art, and drama. Such activities must have academic or aesthetic value and be used to promote knowledge and understanding rather than religious conviction. It is appropriate, for example, to hold a concert that includes a variety of secular and sacred music from diverse traditions. Student-created artwork with religious symbols is permissible, but teachers should not encourage or discourage the content of the artwork.
Students may express religious beliefs in the classroom and during non-instructional hours, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of other students or disrupt school proceedings. Expression includes speech, artwork, written assignments, and even clothing. Students are permitted to pray individually and in groups. They may read sacred texts and discuss religion with other willing students. Students are allowed to wear clothing with religious messages if apparel with secular messages or symbols meets the dress code. They may distribute religious literature under the same terms that govern the distribution of non-school-related literature
In a nutshell, teachers may teach about Christmas, have concerts that include Christian music along with secular songs and those commemorating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Student artwork that portrays Christ’s birth may be posted along with secular student artwork. Students may pass out cards during appropriate class time.
Bottom line: Not only is it unjust to deny students the riches of Christmas history and art in the name of political correctness. It’s downright unconstitutional to deny them religious expression.
While retail stores, as private entities, may do as they please, public education must abide by the Constitution. Happy Holidays will do at Target, but at school, Frosty must make room for the baby in the manger.