Christmas Night at School
The issue presented for discussion is whether the state of Massachusetts can validly allow a “Christmas Night” event. For this event, the school is planning a theatrical production of the “Three Wise Men,” a presentation of several ‘Christmas songs’ and a grab-bag gift session, for which all students were asked to bring a gift costing between five and ten dollars.
Steve and his parents do not celebrate Christmas, and have therefore asked the school to change the theme of the night to not be a “Christmas” night. The school has stated that the Christmas Night will go on as planned, but that Steve and his parents are invited to not attend if that makes them feel more comfortable. Weisman Ruling and State Law/Regulations Based on the present state of both federal and Massachusetts state law, the school will not be able to hold Christmas Night as planned.
There are several reasons for this, most notably a relatively consistent line of United States Supreme Court cases which have held that any attempts by a state actor to sanction or sponsor an event which endorses or promotes a specific religion will be struck down as unconstitutional under the ‘Establishment Clause’ of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Weisman Ruling The most recent and pre-eminent case on point is Lee v. Weisman (505 U. S. 77 (1992)), which held that a Providence, Rhode Island middle school violated the Establishment Clause when it invited a rabbi to its commencement activities to give an invocation prayer to the student body and their parents. Upon objection by the parents of student Weisman to the invocation, the school districted defended its position as compliant with the Establishment Clause by virtue of the fact that participation in the invocation was completely voluntary and that there was no penalty for not participating.
These facts are in many ways completely analogous to the matter of Steve’s “Christmas Night” at his school. Two keys areas of rationale by the Weisman court explain why the position of Steve’s school likelky will not pass muster. First, according to the Court, the option of not attending an event without penalty is not considered a viable and voluntary option. The Court places an intangible value on participating in certain events in a child’s educational life that not attending deprives one of. One of these certainly is the commencement exercise and, arguably, the school holiday festivities are another.
While the Weisman court ruling is limited to the graduation exercise, it is reasonable that a student who is the only (or one of the only) student to not attend is being deprived the benefit of a valued experience that is being sponsored by the school. Secondly, the Weisman Court held that under, the ‘coercion test,’ which is the present standard for evaluating cases under the Establishment Clause, an event is unconstitutional even if it creates an indirect coercion. This means that a school can not authorize the practice of any particular religion.
The Court rationed that “it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government” (505 U. S. 577, 588). Steve’s school is attempting to do exactly what the Weisman Court said it cannot do- create a school program which is composed of the prayers and messages of a specific religion. Massachusetts Law/Regulations This position is even further supported by the existing law in Massachusetts on the subject.
The starting point for this analysis is the General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 71, Section 31A, which provides that the “school committee may set appropriate guidelines for the celebration of Christmas and other festivals observed as holidays for the purpose of furthering the educational, cultural and social experiences and development of children. ” This statute does two things at the state level. First, it acknowledges the need and propriety for regulating the observance of Christmas (and other holidays). Second, it recognizes that school observance of religious holidays is of educational, cultural and social value to students.
Massachusetts passed Regulation 603 in its Regulatory Code which contains a section (#26) on Access to Equal Educational Opportunity. The purpose of this section is to insure that Massachusetts public schools “do not discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation and that all students have equal rights of access and equal enjoyment of the opportunities, advantages, privileges and courses of study at such schools” (603 CMR 26. 01). Further, these regulations impose requirements on the schools to insure that all students are treated equally:
No school shall sponsor or participate in the organization of outside extra-curricular activities conducted at such school that restrict student participation on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation (603 CMR 26. 07). Steve’s school is attempting to sponsor an event that will run directly counter to the mandate of the Regulation, especially 603 CMR 26. 07. The school will argue that Christmas Night is open to all to participate and that any restriction based on religion is on the part of the student’s family and not by the school.
The Weisman Court ruled that to give the student the option of participating in a faith-based event which runs counter to his or her beliefs or to be excluded by virtue of a voluntary (and permitted) absence, and in so doing be deprived of the extra-curricular activity sponsored by the school, creates the indirect coercion and therefore violates the Establishment Clause. Writer’s Thoughts on the Issue This issue presents two sub-issues for discussion. The first is whether the laws and court cases are proper on their face and the second is whether justice is being served in this instance.
Regarding the first the issue, it appears that the laws are generally consistent with our nation’s values and beliefs on the matter of separation of church and state. Our founding fathers fled their respective home countries often times in the face of severe religious oppression. Even on our soil, the Salem witch trials demonstrate the dangers of religious intolerance and regulation. One of the core values that Americans have always stood for is the individual right to practice faith and to be free from institutionalized religion.
Thus, the default position of the law, which states that any adoption of a religion’s practices or dogma is a violation of our constitutional guarantee against the establishment of a religious or its practices, is well founded and consistent with our national values. With respect to the matter of ‘censoring’ Christmas however, the issue can get a little more muddled. Certainly, Christmas is a denominational holiday and certainly many of Christmas’ traditions and observances are very religious in their nature.
However, Christmas above all other denominational holidays, has become quite Americanized since the middle of the 20th century. Many of the customs and traditions have no bearing at all on faith or theology or dogma. Many Americans when they say ‘merry Christmas’ are actually saying ‘happy holidays. ’ Most Americans when they hear ‘merry Christmas’ are actually hearing ‘happy holidays. ’ When left generic and without any of the religious or theological references, Christmas is one of the few events which actually has a unifying and pacifying effect on the nation.
It would be a shame to lose out on this galvanizing and festive force. Analysis of Additional U. S. Supreme Court Cases Abington v. Schempp The landmark case regarding the establishment of religion in U. S. public schools is Abington Township School District v. Schempp (374 US 203 (1963)), which ruled that school sponsored Bible reading in public schools is unconstitutional. This Court ruled that the government, in matters of religion, must protect all, prefer none and disparage none. Neutrality was the only acceptable position for a state or federal government to pursue with respect to any expression of religion.
In his concurring opinion, Justice William Brennan acknowledged that school prayer and Bible study was a significant feature of American life when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified. However, Brennan noted that it was not in the nation’s best interest to seek to interpret the relevance of the Establishment Clause to modern society by applying the literal intent of the interpretation given to the Clause in the previous centuries. Wallace v. Jaffree In 1985 the United States Supreme Court, in Wallace v. Jaffree (472 U. S. 8 (1985)), found that Alabama’s practice of setting aside one minute during each day for silent prayer or meditation to be unconstitutional.
The Court struck down the statute requiring the silent prayer because its purpose was to advance to religion and there was no significant secular purpose for the law. Further, the Court found that the statute placed prayer in favored status over non-prayer, which violates the Establishment Clause’s prohibition against endorsing belief over non-belief and worshippers over dissenters. Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe In a more recent case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (530 U. S. 290 (2000)), the Court ruled that allowing student-led prayer during the schools sponsored football games is unconstitutional. While the school argued that the prayer was private and not public speech, the Court rationed that because of the fact that the prayer is led during the schools sponsored game, using school owned P. A. equipment and on School owned property, the listener will inevitably conclude that School has endorsed the prayer.
Suggestions for a Modified Christmas Night. In order to be able to present a Christmas night, the school must effectively sanitize the event. First, the name should be changed to reflect a holiday season event, without reference to one or more particular religious holidays. Second the program should be expanded to include other cultural holidays. Third, the programs should endeavor to be educational in nature and not merely a celebration of one religion’s customs. Finally, the program should not include any aspects of a program’s dogma or theology (such as the Three Wise Men or the nativity scene). However, a Christmas tree (properly adorned) would be fine.
Even these modifications might not be enough to prevent successful challenges by offended students and their parents. Conclusion The Supreme Court of the United States has, for the past 60-70 years, taken the position that any actions by Federal, state or local government which appears to or actually does promote one religion above another, or subjugates one below another, is invalid and unconstitutional. While the notion of a school Christmas Night does not seem to be nefarious by any means, it will impede on the rights citizens to not be indirectly coerced into participating in a religious event that is not part of their faith or beliefs.