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Religious Observances In Public Schools

The ACLU-Vermont receives many calls from school administrators, teachers, and families with questions about whether certain religious observances or traditions are permissible in public schools.

The ACLU’s goal is to protect the rights of all students to hold the religious beliefs and values that they choose. A school, or any other public institution, may not impose specific beliefs and values on students or on others that it serves.

That's not to say there can't be holiday symbols in a public place, or the singing of Christian carols. There can be -- as long as the symbols or songs don't create the impression that the public institution is endorsing the religion represented by the symbol or song.

The usual solution is to show symbols or perform songs of other religions as well. Once a school allows the display of one religion's sysmbols or the singing of holiday songs associated with a specific religion, it must allow the display of any religion's symbols and have a variety of holiday songs from different religious traditions.

The alternative is to decide that holidays are best celebrated outside of school -- in the churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples where religious life is centered -- and have no religious symbols and perform no religious holiday songs in the school. That is often the most workable and practicable solution.

The idea behind the First Amendment's religious freedom provisions is not to dampen the celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious holiday. Rather, it's to ensure that the government does not endorse the views of one religion to the exclusion of others. This may be hard to understand in a community where the majority of families may be of the same religion. But the Constitution is designed to protect the rights of every citizen -- not just the majority.

The National ACLU has a large section on its Web site called Celebrating Christmas in America. You'll find information on "Christmas Law," "Puritans and Christians," and more.

The ACLU is often criticized for its work defending religious freedom. Critics charge we work to "take God out of schools" or "out of public places." We are committed to making sure the "establishment clause" as well as the "free expression" clause of the First Amendment are respected by everyone. The "establishment clause" prohibits the government from endorsing religion. The "free expression clause" prohibits the government from infringing on citizens' right to exercise the religion of their choice. You can read how the ACLU fights for individuals' religious freedom (in this case, the rights of Christians) at the site,

The ACLU supports the views of a wide range of church groups and religious liberty advocates put forth in the document Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law. The signers of the document range from the National Council of Churches to B’nai B’rith.

Referenced in this document is another helpful document, “Questions and Answers: Religious Holidays in The Public Schools.” This document is a chapter in a longer guide, Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, published by the Freedom Forum and sponsored jointly by a wide range of groups, including the National School Boards Association.

A good Web site for general information on the First Amendment – the amendment protecting religious liberties, free speech, and other important rights -- is maintained by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University . A section of the site deals with religious holidays in schools.


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