This holiday, talking about religion in the classroom is more important than ever

Editor’s note: During the holidays, teachers often grapple with finding ways to educate students on all types of traditions. In their efforts to follow the principle of separation of church and state, many educators steer clear of religion all together.

In this update to her 2014 essay, Syd Golston, a former president of the National Council for the Social Studies, discusses how educators can approach the holidays and how shying away too much from these topics may also bring a certain peril for students’ understanding of world religions.

It’s called “the December Dilemma.” As the Christmas holidays approach, schools are aware that the First Amendment issue of separation of church and state isn’t just something students encounter in social studies classes, but a real and present concern for teachers and administrators. Is it OK to decorate the school and the classroom for Christmas? What kinds of concerts and plays are constitutional in a public school?teacherslounge

There are two good resources I recommend to educators. For a short set of directives, take a look at the First Amendment Center, an educational organization which specializes in advice and resources for teaching, and for a more extensive guide, check out the Anti-Defamation League’s website.

Dr. Michelle Herczog, History-Social Science Consultant at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, cites California’s “Three R’s Project” (Rights, Responsibility, and Respect): “Fortunately, our civic agreement in America, found in the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, binds us to the promise to protect the right of each person’s freedom of conscience.” California is probably our most diverse state; these words are particularly significant after the tragic shootings in San Bernardino.

Herczog adds: “As we enter the holiday season, it is important to remind ourselves of the rich, diverse religious and cultural traditions that are represented in schools and school communities across our nation. Public schools should approach the holiday season as an opportunity to inform and educate students about the origins, meanings, and traditions of various holidays in ways that do not engage students in celebratory activities. By treating the holiday season as a ‘teachable moment’ students can learn about the various backgrounds and traditions our diverse society has to offer.”

Cheryl Drazin, the Southwest Civil Rights Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, says that there are two kinds of complaints she often hears: religious-based practices and parties in classrooms and all-school celebrations. Still, many schools have avoided the advancement of any certain religion by taking the approach of inclusive study of many holidays at once, most of which occur in or near the winter solstice anyway: the Jewish Chanukah, Hindu Diwali, Buddhist Tet, Kwanzaa, and Bayram, a holiday celebrated by Muslims and non-religious people from around the world.

The guiding principle is this: no doctrinal religious belief or non-belief can be promoted by a public school and its employees, but none can be disparaged either. Over time, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed this principle, but the decisions can be hazy around the edges. There must be a clear educational purpose, not a religious one, to holiday celebrations; that is surely clear when a high school choir sings Handel or an art class studies Renaissance nativity paintings, but what about the Christmas tree? In Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union (1989), the court wrote that Christmas trees have the standing of cultural icons and not religious practices. Tree in the classroom? Yes. Crèche beneath it? No.

The worst idea is to avoid controversy by failing to teach about religion, at holiday times and throughout the school year. In Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, the court wrote:

 “The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools; it is the advancement or inhibition of religion that is prohibited. … Hence, the study of religion is not forbidden “when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” … We view the term “study” to include more than mere classroom instruction; public performance may be a legitimate part of secular study. This does not mean, of course, that religious ceremonies can be performed in the public schools under the guise of “study.” It does mean, however, that when the primary purpose served by a given school activity is secular, that activity is not made unconstitutional by the inclusion of some religious content.”

It is not just permissible but imperative in our global society to understand the religious history and practice of world religions. It’s often cited that Americans suffer from a woeful ignorance of the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Students in the early grades should have an age-appropriate introduction to world religions that is particularly appropriate in December. Secondary students would benefit from thoughtful inquiry and discussion of the role that many religious traditions and holidays play in the world’s regions, historically and currently.

Diversity education expert Dr. Cynthia Tyson, Professor of Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education at The Ohio State University, writes that such learning is critical, even for our youngest students. “As social studies teachers we can engage in critical multicultural and culturally responsive/sustaining curriculum to develop the essential consciousness in students that will support them as they become contributing citizens.”

In this particular December, when misconceptions about the Muslim faith abound and Christian exceptionalism has produced a frightening narrowing of understanding in a nation singular for its diverse heritage, we should plan to teach more about world religions than we ever have before.

From my own experience, we are getting better at separation of church and state in schools. In 1985, my son John’s 6th grade teacher assigned students essays on “The True Meaning of Christmas to Me.” Recently, I attended John’s son’s band concert, where the 5th and 6th graders played a couple of Christmas carols, a Beatles song, and the finale of the 1812 Overture.

What does your school do about the December Dilemma? What are your thoughts?

This post was originally published on Dec 15, 2014. It has been updated.