Religious Liberty

School Holiday Concerts

04.20.12

Schools may hold holiday concerts so long as their purpose is neutral and does not give the impression of endorsing religion. The context of the holiday concert will determine whether the holiday program offends the First Amendment’s prohibition against state endorsement of religion or a particular religion. If you are concerned that your school’s holiday concert may violate the law, consider the following steps to investigate:

Song Selection, Ordering and Themes: If the majority of the concert includes overtly religious songs or all of the religious songs in the program are of one religion, then the concert might not be considered neutral. If the program merely contains one religious song, but it is placed at the beginning or end of the performance, then that song may be viewed as an improper religious invocation (beginning) or benediction (at the end). Finally, if the school has chosen to make a particular religious song the school’s theme song, then this choice may be viewed as a sign of improper endorsement.

What the School Says About the Selection of the Songs: What the choir director or teacher responsible for selecting and teaching the music says to the students makes a difference in determining the school’s purpose and its effect on the students. Notes in the official concert program that explain the reason for the selection of holiday concert material inform the audience of the school’s purpose in holding the concert. If the teacher’s instruction or the program notes explain that the selection of the material in the concert was for the teaching quality of the material, its artistic merit or its historical significance, then the purpose of the selection is less likely to be viewed as religiously based. However, if the program notes indicate that the music was chosen because of its religious connections or preferences, then the concert may not be considered neutral.

Performance: Whether the audience takes an active or passive role in the performance can be another factor in determining whether it violates the First Amendment. If the audience remains seated during the performance that has a different effect than if the audience stands, sings along, recites or chants any part of the performance. Standing, singing, reciting and chanting can transform the performance into something more than a neutral holiday concert.

Promotion, location and time of year of the holiday concert: The way that the concert is advertised to the general public or promoted at school may have an effect on whether the concert is viewed as an endorsement of religion. If the concert is performed at a religious institution, then audience members may be more likely to view their attendance at the concert as a form of religious worship. The presence or absence of religious leaders as part of the concert is another factor in whether the concert is seen as endorsing religion. Additionally, if the performance is on a religious holiday, then the neutrality of the performance is questionable.

If you believe your school’s holiday concert is unconstitutional, you should talk to the school and raise your concerns. If the school is not responsive, you may contact the ACLU of Ohio. Email us at contact@acluohio.org and send a detailed message regarding the program as well as a phone number where you can be reached. While the ACLU is not able to intervene on behalf of all individuals who contact us, we will provide assistance when possible.

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This fact sheet is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for personal legal advice.

Visit our Guide to School Holiday Programs page for more information about the acknowledgement of religious holidays in public schools.