Christmas in Public Schools? Yes, We Can!
- Monday, December 01, 2008
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.
That first year, when I asked the principal why Christmas carols had not been included, she said, “Well, there were – Jingle Bells, Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. . . .”
“But those aren’t Christmas carols,” I said. “What about the birth of Jesus?”
She looked at me like I’d gone mad. That a parent might suggest singing songs about Christ at Christmas!
“You know, I understand we’re trying for multiculturalism,” I forged on, “But we’re part of the culture too. What about representing us?”
Today, our family lives in Virginia, where the phrase “In God We Trust” is posted in every public school because it’s required by law, and where educators seem to have a better grasp of what is legally permissible and what is not.
Still, there are always threats to our freedom. I remember waiting after one middle school event to shake the principal’s hand and express my gratitude. A very tall, very unhappy looking father got to her first and began berating her for a biblical reference he noticed in his son’s literature class. I saw her confident, generous smile fade and her shoulders sag. Out of 1200 families at that school, this one angry man might in the end have the most impact. Sure enough, the Spring Concert at that school – for the first time – was completely secular.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to befriend this principal, sharing the information she needs to counter this tyranny of the minority and rejoicing to see the school shift back to religious inclusion. But I’m just one individual. While I have more impact than most with my large family spread among several schools, I still feel very much like the Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dike.
When we see signs of Christian history, art, music, and culture wane, what we need to understand is that it’s not anyone’s fault but our own. Legislators and courts have already done their part to uphold religious freedom. The question is: Have we done ours?
Christian parents need to recognize that even when we delegate responsibility for our children’s education to public schools, we are still responsible for oversight. We are still responsible for challenging censorship of Christian elements in literature and the arts.
The Christmas season reminds us that our job is to stay informed and involved year-round. Don’t wait until something goes wrong to complain. Build relationships with principals and teachers. Know the law and be prepared to share it. But also learn as much as you can about the relationship between Christianity and the arts so you can discuss the importance of our cultural history in a winsome way.
I’m reminded of one high school teacher whose penchant for medieval music guaranteed a Winter Program filled with sacred music. Here's his reaction to one complaint: “When they write other music that’s any good, I’ll use it. My job is to teach music, and I only teach the best.”
Whether this teacher is a believer or not, Christian parents can learn from him. We need to stop thinking defensively and start taking back ground that has been lost through intimidation and fear in public schools.
The fact is that taking Christ out of Christmas doesn’t hurt Christianity – after all Jesus said that even if his disciples were silenced, the rocks would cry out (Luke 19:40). But the historical interconnectedness of faith, inspiration and artistic expression means that any anti-religion attacks on music, art or literature in the public schools must be resisted for the good of all students.
Which is exactly why the law is on our side – and why we need to defend it.
Barbara Curtis has 12 children - including three adopted sons with Down syndrome - and 12 grandchildren so far. She is also an award-winning author with nine books and 800+ articles in print publications including Focus on the Family, Guideposts, Christian Parenting Today, and The Washington Times.
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