Category I: Instruction
Procedure I2: Holiday Observances In Instruction
The United States Constitution, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and related court rulings clearly establish the concept of “church and state separation” and the “preclusion of sectarian instruction in public schools.” Specifically, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ) prevents public entities like schools from taking sides with the faith-based community. By law, religious belief and disbelief are personal matters and not associated with government operations.
Given this, school districts may not endorse (or appear to be endorsing) religious activities in school-sponsored activities. Practically, this means that schools may not give special treatment to believers or special prominence to activities that highlight religion. As such, the observance of religious holidays is not the responsibility of the public schools. Rather it is a responsibility of the District to teach mutual understanding of diversity and respect for all individuals and beliefs. In pursuit of this goal, the District is cognizant of the fact that holidays are observed differently by different groups. It is also recognized that religious holidays can be historically as well as culturally significant.
The District shall use, when appropriate, the guidance established by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine compliance with the Establishment Clause, commonly referred to as the Lemon Test for a 1971 case, Lemon v. Kurtzman. The court identified three questions that must be true to comply with the law. The district shall use these to help determine appropriateness of activities:
- Does the activity have a secular (non-religious) purpose? There must be a secular purpose.
- Does the activity advance or inhibit religion? A neutral position is preferable.
- Does the activity cause excessive entanglement with religion? The school should not become excessively entangled in religious matters as a result of this activity.
While it is recognized that many school-based activities are initiated with the approach of major holidays in order to capitalize on the readiness and interest that is generated at these times, it should be understood that such occasions frequently have religious underpinnings. Care should be taken to relate only to secular aspects of these holidays in order to support an inclusive and welcoming learning environment.
In order to help staff members abide by the spirit and letter of the law, and to avoid compromising any student’s religious or conscientious beliefs or freedoms, the following should serve as guidance:
- The purposes and objectives of any religious holiday activities shall be related to the historical and cultural effect of that day/days and such activities will remain secular.
- Educational opportunities may provide students with opportunities to understand religious events and customs.
- Equitable time and opportunity should be provided for educational opportunities regarding holiday events from various religions.
Music, art, drama and other cultural activities that take place close to religious holidays should not violate the secular nature of the school; these activities should not highlight the religious aspect of these holidays as a prominent motivation or theme. In no circumstances should they convey religious messages. It is understood that cultural activities may include words, images, references or symbols associated with a religion; while allowable these situations should be minimized when possible and the cultural aspects of the activity conveyed, to avoid the perception of promoting religious aspects of the holiday. In situations where a student may choose to use a religious personage, event, or symbol as the vehicle for an artistic expression, they should be allowed to take this action.
The above statements should not be interpreted to preclude the factual and objective teaching about religions, religious holidays, and religious differences. Such instruction will be permitted in the schools since insights in this area can enhance the mutual understanding needed by all the people in a pluralistic society.