The Christmas Quandary: Freedom From Religion in Public Schools

Several Christmases ago, Sophia’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 this skittishness about religious expression in schools is unfounded. And 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.

For those of faith, the coming weeks comprise 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 we 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 some child’s menorah, if they 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. In 1996, 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.”

Often all it takes is one complaint to shut down freedom of expression in a school. I remember after one middle school event waiting to thank the principal, when the man in front of me 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. And I thought that out of 1,200 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.

Teachers and principals need our support.

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.

Challenges to free expression at Christmas remind us that we need 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. And 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 know one high school teacher whose penchant for medieval music guaranteed a winter program filled with sacred music. His reaction to one complaint: “When they write other music that’s any good, I’ll use it. My job is to teach music. Period.”

Whether this teacher is a believer or not, Christian parents can learn from him. We need to stop thinking defensively and start taking back any 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 (Lk 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 sake of all students.

Which is exactly why the law is on our side — and why we need to defend it.

Curtis, who blogs at, is a mother of 12 and author from Lovettsville.

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