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The "December Dilemma": Charles Haynes Discusses Public Schools and Religious Holidays

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About this time each year, public schools face a "December dilemma": What to do about the religious content of the holidays? In a new interview, First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes offers some guidance on how public schools and school districts can avoid common pitfalls.

Of course, public schools should not turn their holiday assemblies into the kinds of devotional events one would expect to find in a church. Such assemblies violate the First Amendment. Nor should public schools banish all mention of religion. Attempts to create anodyne, content-free holiday events often anger religious parents and create more problems than they solve.

Instead, Haynes argues, public schools should use their holiday assemblies as opportunities to teach students about a variety of religious holidays. Such assemblies can help schools fulfill their mission to educate students about the diverse religions and cultures represented in their communities and the nation as a whole. Haynes is careful to point out that school districts can avoid all manner of heartache if they fully engage their communities in finding solutions to the December dilemma.

According to Haynes, the stakes of controversies over holiday assemblies are higher than many realize: "These kinds of controversies are really about...what kind of country we are going to be.... It's extremely important that public schools take the lead in helping us understand one another so we can live together as citizens in one country.

Download the entire interview here, or read a transcript of these highlights below.

Alternatively, download any of the following excerpts from the interview:


Access the materials Haynes discusses in the interview:

  • Finding Common Ground: A guide to religion and public education published by the First Amendment Center



Transcript of Interview Highlights
Charles, you've written about the “Christmas Wars” in the past, and especially how these wars are fought in schools. Could you describe a bit about the controversy as it's been played out in recent years?

HAYNES: I think there's been a long history of confusion about what to do in December. In one direction, schools put on programs that are more devotional than educational. They sometimes turn the school assembly into the local church, which violates the First Amendment.

More commonly, I think in recent years many schools decided to eliminate religion from all of their programs--not mention it and not include sacred music. That doesn't necessarily rise to the level of a First Amendment violation, but it certainly angers the community.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Is there some kind of principle a school can apply in achieving appropriate balance between these two extremes? Maybe balance is even the wrong word.

HAYNES: The first question that I think every school district should ask about the holiday program is: “What is our educational purpose?” If public schools get the educational part right and include teaching about religions and religious holidays and practices at different times of the year, where appropriate, then I think they have satisfied their obligation under the First Amendment to be fair and to be neutral toward religion. But [they are also educating] students about who's in their community and about the variety of religions in our society and the world, [which is] really an important mission of public education.

If [public schools] get their educational mission right, they satisfy the two most important constituent groups that are interested in this issue--two great claims of conscience. On one side, those people who don't want to send their children to public school and have them indoctrinated in religion. But if [the schools] teach about the religious holidays, they address that.

The other group really feels as though their religion should be treated fairly in public school, and they don't like it that public schools often ignore it. But they are satisfied if public schools teach about what Christians really believe in the classroom.

All of that doesn't satisfy the folks who are worried about what do we do about the secular Christmas, or the Santa, the trees and the class parties. Those are not always necessarily First Amendment issues, because things like a Christmas tree are going to be seen by courts as largely secular. But [treatment of the secular Christmas] is a question of building good relationships with the public and parents.

The best approach is for the community to sit together and to say. first, let's get our First Amendment obligation right, and our educational mission right. Now, what do we do about this gray area of the secular? I've seen many communities work on that and come up with some very good solutions that satisfy people.

There's going to be the school assembly program in December. It's unreasonable to say, “Well, let's just not do anything.” I think that schools now understand that they need to be balanced in their program. They need to include a variety of music and expression, and not have it be dominated by just one particular religion or sacred music. At the same time, they should not exclude sacred music. That [exclusion is] odd, and strikes many people as hostile, when everyone knows that that is an important music at this time of year for many people.

So the challenge in these kinds of programs is to find that balance--to make sure the music program is inclusive and to put on a program that educates the public about how different people and traditions are celebrating at this time of year. Most communities, if they come together and they bring a representative group to work with the school board, come up with a policy and a plan that can be widely supported in the community.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So community engagement is an important piece of making these decisions?

HAYNES: I think it's essential. There are school boards that try to devise policies on religion, not just in December but all year long, but they do it from the top down. They announce it, and it often backfires. Even if people don't have a substantive objection to what they're doing, they don't like being left out.

So I think it's very important on these issues to make sure that key voices in the community are at the table and have helped to craft the policy. The challenge for the local district is to be pro-active on this and not wait until a crisis erupts.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are the stakes for schools and also for the broader society of getting this right?

HAYNES: These controversies, of course, are really more about what kind of schools are we going to have and what kind of country are we going to be. The larger question is how are we going to live with one another across our differences.

Now that the United States is the most religiously diverse place in the world, it's extremely important that public schools take the lead in helping us to understand one another so we can live together as citizens in one country.