I just received this very helpful outline on how to handle issues relating to the December holiday season from Shelley Rose, the Associate Director of the Anti-Defamation League based here in Atlanta. If you would like to have a better understanding of the law and how to interact with your child’s school, please read this memo. Shelley gave me permission to share it with you.

The Anti-Defamation League knows that as the December holiday season approaches, incidents of inappropriate and insensitive religious expression tend to arise in our public schools.  School-based holiday celebrations often frustrate Jewish fathers and mothers who both want to instill a Jewish identity in their children and to encourage them to learn about other faith communities.

Religious neutrality in public schools is assured through the First Amendment of the Constitution but many parents may not know how to determine if that line has been crossed or how to react when it has been. It is a constant challenge to guarantee both that public schools remain within constitutional bounds and that the teaching staffs are sensitive to the different faiths represented.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast Region Office offers an interactive workshop for parents and students on the “ABC’s of Religion in the Public Schools.”  Adapted to the specific needs of the specific group, this workshop, presented by a trained staff member, will help parents identify the types of religious activities that are acceptable for a public school environment and where to go for help in addressing situations in their child’s school that are insensitive or unconstitutional.

I recently sent information to school superintendents in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee outlining general guidelines around this issue. That information is copied below. Additional resources are available on the ADL website at this link.

If you would like any further information, please contact:

Shelley Rose, Associate Director

t: 404-262-3470 | f: 404-262-3548 | c:678-938-1399 | srose@adl.org

ADL Southeast Website | On Facebook | On Twitter

MEMO TO PUBLIC SCHOOL LEADERS 

Subject: 2013 December Dilemma Letters & Chart

Dear School Superintendent and School Board Attorney:

As the December holidays approach, we at the Anti-Defamation League — one of the nation’s premier organizations defending religious liberty — know that many school districts are faced with difficult questions about how to appropriately acknowledge the December holidays.  In an effort to help you comply with the United States Constitution and create a school environment that celebrates diversity by respecting differing points of view concerning religion, we offer the following suggestions and encourage you to share them with teachers and staff in your district.

  • General Rule: When a school does choose to acknowledge the December holidays, it is essential that the school must never appear to endorse religion over non-religion or one particular religious faith over another.
  • Public schools must remain free from activities that could involve religious coercion.  Because of their young age, students are particularly impressionable and susceptible to pressure to conform to the beliefs of the majority.  Schools must take care to avoid endorsing the beliefs, practices or traditions of the majority religion.
  • Schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not).  Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional.  Teaching about a holiday will be constitutional if it furthers a genuine secular program of education, is presented objectively, and does not have the effect of endorsing, advancing or inhibiting religion.
  • Special school events, assemblies, concerts and programs must be designed to further a secular and objective program of education and must not focus on any one religion or religious observance.  Religious music or drama may be included in school events, but the reason for including that music or drama must be to advance a secular educational goal.  Such events must not promote or denigrate any particular religion, serve as a religious celebration, or become a forum for religious devotion.
  • Religious symbols are not appropriate seasonal decorations in public schools.  The classroom and school premises are the place where children spend the majority of their day. It is important that all students feel comfortable and accepted in their school. Symbols of religious holidays may make some students uncomfortable and unwelcome because their holidays and traditions are not represented or because they do not celebrate religious holidays at all.
  • In an effort to be ecumenical, it is not advisable to rely on information provided by a representative child of a minority religion.  Students should not be put on the spot to explain their religious (or cultural) traditions.  The student may feel uncomfortable and may not have enough information to be accurate. Moreover, by asking a student to be spokesperson for his/her religion, the teacher is sending a signal that the religion is too “exotic” for the teacher to understand.  Finally, in certain cases, the teacher may be opening the door for proselytizing activity by the student, which must be avoided.
  • Remember: diversity includes religious diversity.  In designing holiday programming it is essential to keep in mind that the children entrusted to your care likely have widely divergent religious points of view.  The way you approach the December holidays will determine whether those children whose religious views fall outside of the majority’s are made to feel welcome and comfortable in their school building or whether they will feel as if they do not belong.
  • Of course during non-curricular time, secondary school students may participate in student-led and student-initiated activities that acknowledge or celebrate the holidays on the same terms that they can participate in non-religious activity.  School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in the event, nor should they be sending the message that the school endorses the event.  School officials also have an obligation to ensure that students who are not inclined to participate are not coerced in any way by fellow students who are participating.  Finally, school personnel cannot promote or participate in such events in their official capacities, although they may be present to monitor the event for compliance with school rules.

We also have a number of publications that can be of help.

These publications are available on line at our Religious Freedom web-page, http://www.adl.org/civil-rights/religious-freedom/; and hard copies of these publications are available by contacting me at srose@adl.org or  404-262-3470. I am also available to lead workshops on this topic with staff and teachers. Let me know if you have any questions.

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