This was not the mother’s first trip to her child’s classroom, where parents regularly volunteered to lead story time. Because it coincided with the holiday season, she thought the ideal story to tell would be the original Christmas story that began nearly 2,000 years ago. But she remembered the memo.
Sent weeks earlier, it was a stern reminder by the school principal that children in public schools could not celebrate Christmas. The sensitive kindergarten teacher added in her own handwriting, “It’s that old ‘separation of church and state’ thing.”
While the children seemed to enjoy A Pocket for Corduroy, the mother felt a certain injustice in her eventual decision to change her choice of books. There was no reason the children should not have been allowed to hear a story about the first Christmas. But she had given up the fight long ago when, after generating a few ripples when her first child was going through school, well-meaning family and friends had advised her to be a help, not a hindrance, to her child’s education.
Unfortunately, far too many parents, students and teachers think they cannot do anything to celebrate Christmas in the public schools. Whether it is ignorance or fear, Americans are painfully misguided about the recognition of religious holidays. Ironically, the most targeted religious holiday for exclusion is Christmas—also the most popular in American culture.
Are children really forbidden from learning about one of the most culturally significant events because it is religious? For that matter, are adults forbidden at work or in public places to celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas?
The truth is simply that no, they are not. In fact, there are constitutionally sound principles that, if followed, will allow the religious significance of Christmas to be celebrated and taught. The following twelve rules are offered:
1. Public school students’ written or spoken personal expressions concerning the religious significance of Christmas (e.g., T-shirts with the slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”) may not be censored by school officials absent evidence that the speech would cause a substantial disruption.
2. So long as teachers are generally permitted to wear clothing or jewelry or have personal items expressing their views about the holidays, Christian teachers may not be prohibited from similarly expressing their views by wearing Christmas-related clothing or jewelry or carrying Christmas-related personal items.
3. Public schools may teach students about the Christmas holiday, including its religious significance, so long as it is taught objectively and for its historical or cultural importance and not for the purpose of promoting Christianity.
4. Public school teachers may send Christmas cards to the families of their students so long as they do so on their own time, outside of school hours.
5. Public schools may include Christmas music, including those with religious themes, in their choral programs if the songs are included for their musical quality or cultural value or if the songs are part of an overall performance including other holiday songs relating to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other similar holidays.
6. Public schools may not require students to sing Christmas songs whose messages conflict with the students’ own religious or nonreligious beliefs.
7. Public school students may not be prohibited from distributing literature to fellow students concerning the Christmas holiday or invitations to church Christmas events on the same terms that they would be allowed to distribute other literature that is not related to schoolwork.
8. Private citizens or groups may display crèches or other Christmas symbols in public parks subject to the same reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that would apply to other similar displays.
9. Government entities may erect and maintain celebrations of the Christmas holiday, such as Christmas trees and Christmas light displays, and may include crèches in their displays—at least so long as such items are placed in context with other symbols of the holiday season as part of an effort to celebrate the public Christmas holiday through its traditional symbols.
10. Neither public nor private employers may prevent employees from decorating their offices for Christmas, playing Christmas music or wearing clothing related to Christmas merely because of their religious content so long as these activities are not used to harass or intimidate others.
11. Public or private employees whose sincerely-held beliefs require that they not work on Christmas must be reasonably accommodated by their employers unless granting the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
12. Government recognition of Christmas as a public holiday and granting government employees a paid holiday for Christmas does not violate the law.
We must remember that those who founded this country and established the freedoms we still cherish were a religious people, and they passed these traditions down to us. Hopefully, we will not be too timid to continue their legacy of freedom.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.