Ethical Educator

Celebrating Faiths or Studying Them?
School Administrator, June 2016

A group of parents have come to the school board to complain that the school district allows celebrations of Halloween and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) but doesn't allow the schools to host any religious celebrations in connection with Christmas. The school board has a policy that schools can teach about religion but must refrain from hosting religious celebrations. The board asks the superintendent for advice on responding to the claims of religious bias.

Shelley Berman
“… the history of nations makes this truth manifest: When religion controls government, political freedom dies; and when government controls religion, religious freedom perishes.” -- Sam J. Ervin Jr., U.S. Senator from North Carolina, in Church & State, February 1985.

As public institutions, schools can teach about religions but need to refrain from promoting or celebrating any particular religion. The separation of church and state is one of the core principles that guide our democracy and our public institutions. That principle supports the free expression of religious beliefs within our society and promotes tolerance of belief and freedom from persecution within our political system. The concept of separation of church and state has deep roots that stretch from Roger Williams to Thomas Jefferson to modern Supreme Court decisions. In this case, the school board policy is an appropriate one. However, in spite of the simplicity of the principle of the separation of church and state, it is sometimes challenging to distinguish between religious and cultural celebrations.

Many people draw a distinction between such religious holidays as Christmas, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah and Eid Al-Fitr and what have come to be viewed as cultural celebrations such as Halloween, Dia de los Muertos and Valentine’s Day. Others, however, view all of these days as having religious connections. In fact, although Halloween and Dia de los Muertos have historical roots in Celtic and Aztec traditions, they also were Christian traditions before becoming more secular in their modern celebration. Therefore, the objections of this group of people need to be heard and respected.

As a first step, it is critical to understand what the group is requesting. If the group is arguing that because schools celebrate these days, they should also celebrate Christmas, it would be important to help them understand that Christmas is clearly considered a religious, not a secular, holiday and that there is a good deal of guidance in law and policy that surrounds how schools can and should approach religious holidays. Because it may seem to this group that there is a fine line between what is considered religious and what is considered cultural, clarifying the difference between religious and cultural holidays will be important for everyone.  More important, it would be helpful to discuss why the separation of church and state is so essential to freedom of belief and religious liberty within our political structures. Some useful resources would be the First Amendment Center ( and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (

Alternatively, the group may be arguing that none of these days be celebrated in school because of their historical connection to religion. It will be necessary to acknowledge that while these days have some historical religious connection, as currently celebrated in schools they represent opportunities for cultural awareness or simply enjoyable traditional activities and don’t involve prayer or any religious instruction.

I would advise the school board that the schools may continue to celebrate these days as long as they celebrate them as cultural traditions and refrain from religious instruction or religious practices. However, individuals who object to these celebrations have the right to have their child excused from discussions and activities related to these holidays or from attendance on those days. These requests should be granted.

Although the concept of separation of church and state is familiar to most people, we rarely spend time delving deeply into the roots of this concept to see the vitality it brings to freedom of religion within our society and tolerance for diversity within our political system. This group’s presentation to the school board presents an opportunity to refresh parents’ and staff’s understanding of the reasons this concept is so vital. At least two Supreme Court justices, Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black, made profound statements that reveal the importance of this Constitutional principle. Their words may be useful in communicating both the essential reasons for the principle and the longstanding tradition it has throughout our nation’s history.

“The nonsectarian or secular public school was the means of reconciling freedom in general with religious freedom. The sharp confinement of the public schools to secular education was a recognition of the need of a democratic society to educate its children, insofar as the state undertook to do so, in an atmosphere free from pressures in a realm in which pressures are most resisted and where bitterly engendered. Designed to serve as perhaps the most powerful agency for promoting cohesion among a heterogeneous democratic people, the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects." --Justice Felix Frankfurter, U.S. Supreme Court, in McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948.

“By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious service.... The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say -- that the people's religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office.” --Justice Hugo Black, U.S. Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, 1962.

Kelly Henson
The best response the superintendent can give is that he will meet with the board attorney and develop a response to the claims of religious bias.  While there can be no doubt that schools cannot promote or endorse a religion, the question of comparing the wearing of Halloween costumes to a religious celebration is one that is not nearly as easy to decide. This question might be decided in different ways in different communities based on community tradition and a number of other factors.

My personal opinion is that you should not equate allowing students to dress in costumes for Halloween to endorsing or promoting a religion.  The almost purely secular nature of Halloween as opposed to the strong religious attachment to Christmas makes the comparison invalid. I do not see allowing children to dress for Halloween as an infringement on the separation of church and state nor do I see it as the district engaging in religious bias.

Mario Ventura
School districts need to be sensitive toward the beliefs and values of the families and students within their community. As our communities become increasingly diverse, concerns about what constitutes a religious celebration can be difficult to determine and cause conflict between school district and parents.

A well-articulated policy, which distinguishes between a religious celebration and teaching about religious holidays, could serve as a guide for resolving complaints. In this scenario, the superintendent should meet with the parent group and assure them the district’s position on the teaching of religion is centered on learning standards adopted by the state.

The superintendent should request for the school administrators to gather specific information from the parents about their concern and review the district policy as well as the evaluation of trainings provided to educators about the appropriate way to teach religious customs as they relate to their curriculum. Although religious celebrations are prohibited, the superintendent could work with the concerned parents to discuss how schools could teach about religious customs and beliefs of people that celebrate Christmas during the holiday season. The superintendent needs to assure the governing board that religious celebrations in the schools are prohibited and the teaching of religious customs and traditions within the curriculum are done in a fair and balanced manner that does not favor one group’s religious views over another’s.   

Sarah Mackenzie
To deal with this issue, I went to the First Amendment Center ( A very clear article there responds to this question. The article, “Day of the Dead issue haunting public schools” (, notes that Halloween has essentially become a secular holiday despite its origins in pagan activities, which then blended with Christian traditions. The Day of the Dead, however, remains very much a religious holiday, celebrated in Catholic churches during the two days following Halloween. Dia de los Muertos is a cultural and religious celebration found generally in Mexico and Central America and, thus, in the U.S. where there are Hispanic populations.

No matter what the school population, it is important to consider the distinction made by the First Amendment Center. There is a “legal bright line between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible under the First Amendment, and celebrating a religious holiday, which isn't.” And in policy, that is what this school system is doing.  Teachers or school leaders, though, may not be clear about the difference between studying about a religion or religious practice and celebrating it.

Learning about this particular practice, the authors of the article say, might involve, depending on the age of the students, making and displaying face masks, sampling some specific foods, or hearing music associated with the holiday. Role-playing a procession would not be acceptable. They remark that not only could it be seen as celebrating the holiday, but it could also be seen as “trivializing” a sacred practice. Margaret Hill, Director of the California 3Rs project—Rights, Responsibility, and Respect—( provides many resources educators can use to teach about the Day of the Dead.  

The board’s role in this situation is to make sure the school system follows its policies, so it behooves the superintendent to remind all teachers of the guidelines provided by the First Amendment Center with regard to studying religion in public schools.

Here are some questions that teachers and administrators should ask themselves when planning activities that may involve religious content (e.g., a holiday assembly in December):

* Do I have a distinct educational or civic purpose in mind? If so, what is it? (It may not be the purpose of the public school to promote or denigrate religion.)

* Have I done what I can to ensure that this activity is not designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?

* Does this activity serve the educational mission of the school or the academic goals of the course?

* Have I done what I can to ensure that no student or parent may be made to feel like an outsider, and not a full member of the community, by this activity?

* If I am teaching about religion, am I balanced, accurate, and academic in my approach?

The superintendent also needs to examine the curriculum related to the learning activities for the study of the Day of the Dead and ensure they follow these principles.   

Furthermore, the superintendent can emphasize that it can be acceptable and appropriate for students to learn about Christmas music, art related to the holiday, or the traditions of the holiday as part of music, art, or social studies classes, for example. Learning about the custom and rituals of the Day if the Dead would likewise be acceptable. The point is to make certain that such study is in keeping with the curriculum and provides accurate information.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Kelly Henson, executive director, Georgia Professional Standards Commission; Sarah MacKenzie, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Maine at Orono; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz., and member of the Model Code of Educator Ethics Task Force.