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  Religious Freedom
December Dilemma

Decorating Public School Classrooms and Grounds With Holiday Symbols


Introduction
Religion in the Classroom
Holiday Assemblies
Performing Religious Music
Holiday Displays

Public school officials may decorate classrooms and other areas of public schools to recognize certain holiday seasons. But they must be careful not to send a message through these decorations that a certain religion is endorsed or favored by the school.

The Supreme Court has never ruled specifically on holiday displays in public schools, but its decisions on such displays on public property, like parks and courthouses, are instructive in this area.

In the context of displays on public property, the Supreme Court has ruled that a Christmas crèche standing alone is impermissible, but a Christmas tree is permissible because it has become such a secular symbol of the winter holiday season. 23 It also has found that a Chanukah menorah is a symbol with both secular and religious meanings, and its display on public property within a predominantly secular display is permissible. 24

Due the impressionability of school children, the Supreme Court has noted that a holiday display of a Chanukah menorah and secular symbols such as a Christmas tree could raise additional constitutional concerns. 25 However, lower courts have not invalidated such displays and it's likely that they are permissible.

Thus, the particular symbols used and the context of the display are vitally important to determine whether the decorations are permissible. As one court has put it: "The context in which a symbol appears is critical because it may determine what viewers fairly understand to be the purpose of the display, and may negate any message of endorsement that the religious symbol might otherwise evoke." 26

If schools choose to recognize holidays through decorations, they should represent the diversity of the season and should avoid symbols with patently religious meanings to avoid sending the message to students that a religion or a particular denomination is preferred. 27

Additionally, symbols depicting religious holidays are most appropriate when accompanied by both secular objects and symbols from holidays of other religions. This combination of faiths and of secular and sacred helps to neutralize messages of favoritism and concerns about religious coercion.

For instance, on a board filled during the winter months with images of snowflakes, candles and evergreen trees, it might be appropriate to add images of Santa Claus and even a Chanukah menorah because the overall message is clearly a celebration of the season, not the promotion of a religious point of view. However, a nativity scene, crucifix or other undeniably religious symbols are not appropriate for a public school display, especially when they are the only objects displayed. 28

If a school wishes to recognize seasonal holidays, temporary secular displays that recognize secular aspects of the season and perhaps also holidays with a religious origin are the most appropriate and permissible. 29 If symbols that depict religious holidays are used, the display should visually represent holidays of several religions and should also include secular decorations of the season.

 

 

Related Materials
Teaching about Chanukah

Recommended Children’s Books for Holidays/Celebrations

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