By: Emily Conley
On the first myth of Christmas, the Establishment Clause gave to me . . . it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but you get the idea (And possibly, the song stuck in your head. You’re welcome).
Myth 1: Students are not allowed to sing or play religious Christmas carols in public schools.
Fact: In the case of eighth-grader Phillip Dean, his school band was informed that they would have to cut songs from their upcoming concert because of the religious nature of the instrumental Christmas carols. But, during school activities such as choir and Christmas programs, students can sing and perform religious carols along with secular ones. The school needs a secular purpose for including the religious songs, like teaching about our society’s cultural and religious heritage and giving students the opportunity to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama.
In Phillip’s case, ADF equipped him to speak at a school board meeting and provided him with a letter for the board. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to bring the songs back.
Myth 2: It is unconstitutional for school officials to refer to a school break as a “Christmas Holiday.”
Fact: Schools don’t need to call it “Winter Break” or “Sparkle Season” out of fear of using the word “Christmas.” The Supreme Court has acknowledged the government’s long-standing recognition of holidays with religious significance, such as Christmas. Congress has even proclaimed Christmas to be a legal public holiday.
Myth 3: It is unconstitutional for public schools to close on religious holidays, such as Christmas and Good Friday.
Fact: The Establishment Clause doesn’t prohibit state officials from choosing a religious day as the day for a legal holiday.
Myth 4: Public schools have to recognize all religious holidays if they recognize Christmas.
Fact: A school does not have a legal duty to recognize every religious holiday simply because an existing school holiday coincides with a particular religious celebration.
Myth 5: Public schools can ban teachers and students from saying “Merry Christmas.”
Fact: The Supreme Court stated that teachers and students do not shed the right of free speech at the schoolhouse gate. Saying a simple greeting that people commonly use in December does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Myth 6: Public schools cannot have students study the religious origins of Christmas and read the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ.
Fact: The Supreme Court has stated that “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”
Myth 7: Public schools cannot display religious Christmas symbols.
Fact: The display of a Nativity scene is constitutional if it is displayed for purposes like celebrating the holiday and depicting the origins of the holiday. A public school is free to display a Nativity scene among other forms of religious and secular seasonal expression.
Myth 8: Students cannot hand out invitations to a Christmas party held at their church while they are at school.
Fact: That’s what school officials told Katie Ayers, a fifth grader who was not allowed to pass out invitations to a Christmas party at her church, despite the fact that other students were allowed to pass out invitations to birthday parties, Halloween parties, and other events. ADF defended Katie’s free speech rights, arguing that even young students are guaranteed rights under the First Amendment, and won.
Myth 9: Students cannot give their classmates gifts that reference the Christian origins of the holiday.
Fact: Michael Barden, a high school sophomore, attached notes to a group of candy canes that described a Christian legend about the history of the popular Christmas candy, but school officials did not allow him to pass them out to his friends at school. When Michael contacted ADF, we sent the school a letter explaining that the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that public schools must prohibit the distribution of religious Christmas messages. The school principal then granted Michael permission to hand out the candy canes.
Myth 10: School choirs and bands cannot use churches as venues, because of the “separation of church and state.”
Fact: ADF has sent letters to several school districts who stopped allowing their high school choirs to use local church buildings as venues, even though the choirs were not using churches for any religious reason, but in some cases, simply because they had good acoustics and the schools didn’t have auditoriums.
Voluntary performances at a church do not promote religion. “Schools should not have to think twice about whether they can allow choirs to participate in community Christmas events,” says ADF attorney Rory Gray. “Courts have unanimously allowed students to sing Christmas carols at school. Nothing changes when they sing the same Christmas songs at a community festival instead.”
Myth 11: Teachers cannot display a “Christmas tree” in the classroom; it should be called a “unity tree” or “diversity tree.”
Fact: Once again, no court has ruled that “Christmas” is unconstitutional. In fact, The Supreme Court has acknowledged the government’s long-standing recognition of holidays with religious significance, such as Christmas. Teachers don’t need to censor themselves from referencing the Christian origin of the tradition of decorating a tree.
Myth 12: Students cannot talk about their faith and the religious origins of Christmas in class assignments.
Fact: Schools can’t refuse to allow, punish, or give a lower grade to a student who includes religious viewpoints in a class assignment. Far from “establishing religion,” that would be displaying an anti-religious bias, which is unconstitutional and infringing on the free speech of students.
Discover Your Rights to Religious Christmas Expression
To help parents and students debunk the myths mentioned in this post, ADF developed a short memo outlining the constitutionally protected rights of students and teachers to religious Christmas expression.
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