Guide to School Holiday Programs
Remember that First Amendment rights only apply to interactions with government actors, so this information applies in public, but not private, institutions.
Under current law, public schools generally may acknowledge and discuss religious holidays, as long as the focus is an educational one and not devotional.
For example, schools may erect holiday displays, convene holiday assemblies, and sponsor concerts as long as they are done for legitimate educational purposes and the effects generally are secular.
If a public school celebrates the December holidays or teaches about them in a proselytizing manner, it may be perceived as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Also note that just because a school vocal or band program includes religious selections, it does not automatically trigger a constitutional violation.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court set forth a three-pronged test that should be applied to each school-sponsored activity with religious content in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman. These questions include:
What is the purpose of the activity?
What is the primary effect of the activity?
Does the activity facilitate entanglement with religion and the school?
If you attend or have first-hand knowledge of a holiday observance or performance in the public schools with a predominantly religious message, you may want to consider the following steps to investigate the situation:
Get the facts. Contact the school officials or offices responsible for the coordination of the holiday programs. If school officials are hesitant to provide you with this information, consider filing a public records request to obtain the information you are seeking. For more information on making a public records request, see the Ohio Attorney General’s website at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov or the ACLU of Ohio’s public records guide here.
Offer a reminder. If the school sanctions a predominantly religious program, call or write the school officials to remind them the Constitution forbids a government endorsement of religion. Tell them that school-sponsored programs that favor one religion over others sends a message to those of various faiths and belief systems they are not welcome. Also remind them that the Constitution exists to protect the rights of the few, or even one, against the tyranny of the majority.
Amplify your message. Write letters to the editor or guest columns to your local paper advocating your views. Attend school board or parent-teacher organization meetings to discuss your concerns. Form a coalition of like-minded people to speak out on behalf of your collective opinions. You may be surprised at how many people feel the same way but may be reluctant to speak out.
Suggest a more diverse program. By selecting musical pieces and themes that address the secular as well as religious aspects of the holidays, more viewpoints will be addressed; and a religiously neutral program or lesson effectively ends any constitutional concerns.
Contact the ACLU of Ohio. Send a one-page summary describing the program, performance, or lesson to the ACLU of Ohio, 4506 Chester Avenue, Cleveland Ohio 44103. Please include the following information in the letter: A detailed description of the performance or observance; the date of the performance or program; and who was responsible for the coordination of the program. If possible, please include copies of the program for our review and any news articles addressing the program. Also include copies of any correspondence between you and the school regarding the performance or observance. Our Intake Department will review your letter and contact you if the ACLU is able to be of assistance. 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.
Some information contained in this piece comes from the National Association for Music Education fact sheet: “Sacred Music in Schools” (www.nafme.org) and The ACLU Handbook: “The Right to Religious Liberty” (Lynn, Stern, and Thomas).
Visit our School Holiday Concert guide page for more information on school sponsored concerts.
For more information about the separation of church and state and other civil liberties issues, please see our Religious Liberty page.