General Rule: Teachers must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious
holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not).
Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional.
Teaching about a holiday will be constitutional if it furthers a genuine secular
program of education, is presented objectively, and does not have the effect of advancing or
inhibiting religion. 38 The U. S. Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on this subject.
Please see also ADL's companion piece: The December Dilemma: Guidelines for Public Schools
During the December Holidays.
May religious symbols be used as teaching aids in the classroom? Yes. Religious symbols
such as crosses, creches and menorahs may be used as teaching aids in the classroom provided
that the symbols are displayed as examples of the cultural and religious heritage of the
holiday, and are temporary in nature.
May religious symbols be used as decorations? No. Religious symbols are not permissible
seasonal or permanent decorations. 39
What about symbols that have become secular? The Supreme Court has held that a
Christmas tree has become such a secular symbol of the winter holiday season that its display
by a public entity does not violate the Establishment Clause. 40 The Supreme Court has
also found that a Hanukkah menorah is a symbol with both secular and religious meanings,
and its display by a public entity other than a school within a predominantly secular holiday
display does not offend the Establishment Clause. 41 The Supreme Court has not addressed
whether such a display is permissible in the public school context, but it has noted that a
school's display of a Christmas tree and menorah could raise additional constitutional concerns. 42
However, lower courts have not invalidated such displays and it is likely that they
Even setting aside the legal questions for a moment, teachers and school administrators
should be extremely cautious in using these symbols as decorations. The classroom and
school premises are the place where children spend the majority of their day. It is important
that all students feel comfortable and accepted in their school. Symbols of religious holidays
may make some students uncomfortable and unwelcome because their holidays and traditions
are not represented or because they do not celebrate religious holidays at all.
May religious music, art, literature and drama be used in teaching about holidays?
Yes. Music, art, literature, and drama with religious themes may be included in teaching
about holidays, provided that their overall effect is not to endorse religion and that they are
presented in a religiously neutral, prudent and objective manner, and relate to sound, secular
educational goals. Indeed, the study of religiously inspired material can, in the correct
setting, be made a part of a secular educational program. 43
May school assemblies or special events include religious music or drama?
Yes. Religious music or drama may be included in school events that are part of a secular
program of education. The content of school special events, assemblies, concerts and programs
must be primarily secular, objective and educational, and may not focus on any one
religion or religious observance and may not appear to endorse religion over non-religion or
one religion over another. 44 Such events must not promote or denigrate any particular religion,
serve as a religious celebration, or become a forum for religious devotion. Student participation
should be voluntary. Thus, a school's choral group can sing songs that are religious
in nature but may only do so if the song is part of a larger program of music which is
May schools incorporate religious themes in a holiday assembly or winter concert?
The study of religious holidays may also include "more than mere classroom instruction." 45
For instance, public performances or presentations of music, literature and art are permissible,
as long as they are "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." 46
A permissible purpose for such a program may be advancing students' knowledge of society's
cultural and religious heritage. 47
Religious music, literature, art or other religious activities should never dominate school
activities. These activities are permissible only if they make up a small portion of a school-sponsored
event. For instance, it may be permissible to have students act out a play which
contains one scene where a family is shown opening presents on Christmas morning.
However, school-sponsorship of a play about the birth of Jesus would be impermissible
because such performances are inherently affirmations of a certain religious point of view.
School-sponsored activities should also focus on more than one religion and religious holiday.
Depicting a diversity of beliefs and customs is important to teaching public school students
about religion and culture. It also helps to ensure that public schools remain neutral
and do not endorse, promote or denigrate any particular denomination or custom.
It is also important to provide students the opportunity to choose not to participate in activities
they find offensive to their religious sensibilities. Importantly, a student's grades or
school record must not be affected by a decision not to participate.
May students be excused from classes that teach about religious holidays if they have
objections based on religious beliefs? Yes. If the religious beliefs of students or their parents
conflict with the content of classroom activity, students may be excused. 48 However, in
excusing a student, care should be taken to avoid stigmatizing or appearing to punish the
student (for example, a student who is not permitted to take part in a holiday party should
not be required to sit in the hall and do math problems).
Should schools close for major religious holidays? Public schools should not close or
reschedule activities solely because of conflicts between the school calendar and religious
holidays. However, schools may consider closing when large numbers of student and
teacher absences are anticipated. 49 Schools should still take great care in creating their schedules.
To avoid penalizing students for religious observance, school calendars should be prepared,
to the greatest extent feasible, so as not to conflict with religious holidays of all faiths.
A sincere attempt should be made to avoid scheduling graduation, assemblies, and other
special school and student events on religious holidays. If conflicts occur, teachers and
administrators should exercise sensitivity and flexibility in resolving them.
Notably, because in some religions (including Judaism), holidays fall on different days each year, ADL
annually publishes a calendar that lists the holidays of numerous religions. Your Regional Office
would be pleased to provide you with information about obtaining a copy.
What are the responsibilities of the school toward a student who has taken an excused
absence for a religious holiday? A student should not suffer adverse or prejudicial consequences
from an excused absence for religious observance and should be allowed a reasonable
opportunity to make up the schoolwork missed due to the absence. Penalties to scholastic
records may not be imposed upon students who are absent for religious holidays. 50
Students should never feel pressured to choose between school attendance and religious
Muslim's Parents Complain About a December Holiday Lesson Limited to Christmas
Ms. Thomas, a fourth grade teacher, taught a holiday lesson in December which included
a brief historical review of Christmas, a discussion of art memorializing the birth of
Jesus Christ, and a study of Christmas carols in the designated music period. Ms.
Thomas also told the class about Hanukkah, the Maccabee warriors and the menorah oil
that lasted eight days, and passed around a dreidel to help the class understand the
Jewish holiday. The parents of James Mitchell, a Muslim student in her class, complained
to the principal that Ms. Thomas only included Christianity and Judaism in her holiday
lesson, and ignored their child's faith completely.
Was the holiday lesson appropriate? What should the principal do to remedy the concerns
of James Mitchell's parents?
The holiday lesson plan was appropriate according to legal standards. However, the Muslim religion's
holidays, as well as holidays of other religious minorities, should be included in the holiday
lesson plan to reflect the true diversity of religions in our culture.
Sixth-grader Seeks to Be Excused from Performing in December Concert That
Includes Secular and Religious Songs
An elementary school choir is performing a holiday concert in December which includes
secular seasonal songs such as "Jingle Bells" and religious songs such as "Silent Night."
Deborah Perry, a sixth grade member of the school choir, asks to be excused from singing
at the concert since participation would violate her religious beliefs. Deborah's parents
complain to school officials that the holiday concert is unconstitutional because it features
How should school officials resolve this situation?
The school concert may constitutionally include some religious songs provided that the concert
features mostly secular songs, and that the concert as a whole is primarily educational, secular,
objective and nondenominational. However, Deborah Perry's participation should be voluntary,
and therefore she should be excused from participation in the concert. Deborah's grade or school
record should not be affected by her decision not to participate.