School & District Management

Celebrating Holidays at School: Legal Guidance for Administrators

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 13, 2022 4 min read
Photo of calendar with holidays marked.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Extensive planning goes into public schools’ holiday preparations this time of year—from which decorations should adorn classrooms to what music selections will make it into the holiday concert. But despite the seemingly lighthearted nature of these tasks, there’s one serious factor to consider that, if overlooked, could cause even the most highly orchestrated holiday plans at public schools to unravel or, worse, result in a lawsuit.

Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, sums up the legal considerations to keep in mind when preparing for school-based holiday celebrations: “It’s clear that the [public] school can’t endorse particular religious views.”

But what’s clear to legal experts isn’t always obvious to others.

Cornell University education professor Jill Heinrich points out that, over the past several decades, schools have “repeatedly violated” the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which mandates separation of church and state. Those violations, Heinrich suggests, occur primarily when schools misunderstand what separation of church and state means in practice. The result of these violations, said Heinrich, is “a steady stream of litigation over the past 70 years.”

Lawsuits filed over holiday-related activities, performances

One recent lawsuit—filed in December 2021 by a parent in California’s Carmel River School—sought a temporary restraining order after school administrators and the parent-teacher organization denied her request to display a six-foot inflatable menorah beside a Christmas tree during a planned tree lighting ceremony on the school grounds.

The parent, who is a lawyer, sued the Carmel Unified school district; its superintendent, Ted Knight; and the elementary school’s principal, Jay Marden, according to a news report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Days later, though, the parent voluntarily withdrew the suit after a judge determined that she had not met the legal standard required for a restraining order. In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman said that in contemporary times, Christmas trees “typify the secular celebration of Christmas” while menorahs are considered religious expressions.

Another lawsuit claiming violation of the Establishment Cause was filed in October 2015 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of a student and his father over a winter holiday performance in 2014 at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., that included an estimated 20-minute portrayal of the birth and adoration of Jesus Christ in a nativity scene by students and scripture reading.

After the complaint, the school revised the winter performance, omitting the scripture reading and using mannequins instead of student-actors for the nativity scene, and adding songs from non-Christian religions. But the Foundation filed an amended complaint, claiming that the performance was still unconstitutional and requesting a permanent injunction of the performance. The case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals and, in March 2018, federal judges denied the request for the permanent injunction on the grounds that the nativity scene no longer represented a centerpiece of the performance.

Strategies for staying within the law

While the outcomes in both lawsuits ultimately favored the school and/or district, the time and resources they likely required of K-12 administrators could have been avoided altogether.

Negrón suggests that educators and school officials take the time to ask some basic questions about planned school-based holiday activities—long before actors are chosen for performances and invitations for holiday celebrations are distributed.

The overarching legal question to ask, said Negrón, is this: Does the activity meet constitutional muster? Answering this question, he explains, requires considering more than just the form of the activity, but also its function.

He suggests educators ask:

  • What are you trying to do; what’s your intent?
  • Is the activity religious in nature?
  • Do religious themes make up the majority of a program?

“It’s heavily dependent on what and why it’s done,” Negrón said. “It doesn’t mean a school can’t engage in religious-based instruction, provided that it’s not proselytizing in nature.”

He points to holiday music selections as an example of where there’s some ambiguity.

“A lot of classical music played during the holidays tends to have religious overtones,” Negrón said. “Generally, that’s OK as long as the performance is educational in nature and varied—not about one particular religion; for instance, not performing only selections from a Christian repertoire.”

“Public schools need to understand that they are schools for the community,” Negrón said. “Making sure they’re not engaging in sanctioning a particular religious point of view over a non-religious point of view, or one [religious point of view] over another.”

When in doubt, Negrón says don’t risk guessing. Ask for advice from a lawyer who works for the school district.

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice
When one Virginia principal moved from middle school to high school, he knew he would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
3 min read
Illustration of students holding speech bubbles.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
School & District Management Four Things to Know From a State's Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps
Installing a heat pump is complex, but the payoff is well worth it, says an expert in Maine who's pushing their adoption in schools.
4 min read
Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall
E+/Getty
School & District Management 3 Things That Keep Superintendents in Their Jobs
Two experienced leaders say strong relationships with the community and school board make all the difference.
5 min read
Magnet attracting employee candidates represented by wooden dolls
iStock/Getty