Several Christmases ago, my daughter’s art teacher gave this assignment: Make holiday posters.

She also made it clear:  No religion allowed.

I guess it wouldn’t be Christmas without the fear of a lawsuit, would it? 

But such skittishness about religious expression in schools is unfounded. I know because I’ve been researching and reporting on this subject since 1998, when a couple of my kids were attending a small elementary school in dairy farm land an hour north of San Francisco. 

My wake-up call came at the “Winter Program” where families sat through songs about Santa, chimneys, and reindeer, plus three songs about Chanukah and one about Kwanzaa – this though the school boasted only one Jewish family (non-practicing) and not a single African-American. 

Ninety musical minutes with nary a note about Jesus.

While I have no fear that Christianity will survive whether censored out of public schools or not, that’s not the issue. The issue is the First Amendment. 

Are schools supposed to support freedom from religion or freedom of religion? There’s a big difference.

I share my California experience because it shows what can happen when schools become overzealous in their efforts to avoid promulgating a certain religion. And – let’s face it – the religion we’re always worried about not promulgating is Christianity. It’s this worry which leads some teachers to err on caution’s side, nixing potential conflict by controlling the creativity and spontaneous expression of students. 

I understand their dilemma, I really do.   

But for those of faith – and I speak here of several faith traditions – this month marks a holy season. Some parents have worked hard to raise children whose faith is a vital, integral part of who they are as individuals – not just a label or a rote activity. If such parents have succeeded, teachers should not be surprised that what bubbles up creatively from their students reflects their faith rather than glittering generalities or superficial, materialistic aspects of the season. 

This is a good thing – kids with convictions. And I promise not to be offended by your child’s Menorah, if you promise not to be offended by my child’s Manger.

But we don’t need to hash these things out on a case-by-case basis. The answers are already in place. A few years ago, President Clinton, concerned that some educators and community members had incorrectly assumed that schools must be religious-free zones, asked U. S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to issue guidelines.  The result is a remarkably concise, clear and sensible document titled Religious Expression in Public Schools: a Statement of Principles.

The guidelines affirm that while teachers may not encourage or join in students’ religious activity, the school’s official religious neutrality requires that:

“Teachers and administrators are also prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.”

In addition to allowing student religious expression, the law is clear – on federal and state level as well as in courts – that teachers may teach in historical context the biblical origin of Christmas, just as they may teach that Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple.

As for Christmas carols, not only have courts ruled consistently that they may be sung in public school programs, but teachers who neglect religious-themed music limit themselves and their students not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. Carols, spiritual anthems and choruses are among the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.