The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined an opportunity to clarify a question that vexes many school districts each December: Just which holiday symbols may be constitutionally displayed in public schools?
The justices refused to review a case challenging the New York City school system’s policy of permitting schools to display Christmas trees and Santa Claus decorations, Jewish menorahs, and Islamic star and crescent symbols, but not Christian nativity scenes, or crèches, during the holiday period.
The high court had apparently given the case close consideration. It weighed the appeal in Skoros v. City of New York (Case No. 06-271) at seven of its private conferences since November before issuing a Feb. 20 order declining review without comment.
“We were disappointed and surprised that it was a flat-out denial,” said Brian Rooney, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center, a legal-advocacy group based in Ann Arbor, Mich. The organization represented Andrea Skoros, a Roman Catholic mother in New York who challenged the school system’s policy.
Ms. Skoros’ suit contended that her two sons’ schools in December 2001 and 2002 were festooned with Christmas trees, menorahs and dreidels in recognition of Hanukkah, and references to the Islamic holy period of Ramadan and the secular African-American celebration known as Kwanzaa.
The 1.1 million-student district had turned down a Catholic organization’s request to permit nativity scenes in the schools. The district said it permitted holiday symbols with secular dimensions, but did not allow “purely religious” symbols such as crèches, which display a figure of the newborn Jesus. The district said its aim was to promote cultural understanding among its religiously and ethnically diverse student population.
The school system said in court papers that its policy barred any display of deities, and that it did not allow religious displays for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that had not attained secular significance.
Ms. Skoros’ lawsuit argued that the refusal to allow crèches while permitting Jewish and Islamic religious symbols “conveyed the impermissible message of disapproval of Christianity” and violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion, as well as her family’s free-exercise-of-religion right.
Both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, both in New York, upheld the school district’s policy as having a valid secular purpose.
“Because a significant number of New York City schoolchildren or their parents are immigrants, sometimes from countries that place little value on either diversity or tolerance, city schools play a particularly important role in teaching these essential elements of pluralism to future generations of Americans,” said the opinion by Judge Reena Raggi last year for a 2-1 majority of the 2nd Circuit court. “The fact that they do so … through cheerful multicultural holiday displays rather than formal textbook assignments does not diminish the importance of the lesson, much less call into question its actual secular purpose.”
Confusing Case Law
The opinion said the New York system was wrong to characterize the Jewish menorah and Islamic star and crescent as secular symbols, but it was OK for them to be incorporated into a holiday display that was largely secular. The court said the district was understandably confused by the Supreme Court’s complex rulings on holiday displays, which have upheld nativity scenes in certain government places as long as they are surrounded by secular symbols such as Christmas trees and reindeer.
The dissenting judge on the 2nd Circuit panel said the displays permitted under the policy would send a message to students that the district endorsed Judaism and Islam, and a message to parents that Christianity was disfavored.
Leonard J. Koerner, a lawyer in New York’s corporation counsel’s office, said the district’s policy has not changed since the challenge.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Justices Decline Appeal on School Holiday Displays