School Business Affairs November 2014 - page 35
legislative issues
The status of
holiday celebrations
in public schools is
a key issue related
to separation of
church and state.
Legal Issues Surrounding
Christmas in Public Schools
By Charles J. Russo, J.D., Ed.D., and Ralph D. Mawdsley, Ph.D., J.D.
s the United States becomes
increasingly religiously diverse,
surprisingly relatively little litiga-
tion has occurred over the cel-
ebration of religious holy days and holidays
in public schools. Although the Supreme
Court has addressed Christmas displays
on two occasions—in
Lynch v. Donnelly
(1984) and
County of Allegheny v. Ameri-
can Civil Liberties Union
case directly concerned public schools.
The status of holiday celebrations in pub-
lic schools is a key, if seasonal, issue in light
of the importance of religion in the lives of
many Americans, as educators seek to teach
students to appreciate diversity in all of its
manifestations, including religion.
Supreme Court Cases
As noted, neither of the Supreme Court’s
two cases on the constitutionality of Christ-
mas displays in public settings directly
involved schools. Even so, both cases are
worthy of consideration because they shed
light on the Court’s thinking with regard to
religious holidays and related activities in
public schools.
Lynch v. Donnelly
, citizens in Pawtucket, Rhode
Island, challenged the inclusion of a crèche
in a Christmas display in a park in the city’s
shopping district that was owned by a non-
profit organization. The display, which had
been set up for at least 40 years, included a
Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s
sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree,
a variety of festive figures, the crèche, and a
banner proclaiming “Season’s Greetings.”
After the First Circuit affirmed that the
display violated the First Amendment, a
divided Supreme Court reversed in favor of
the city. The Court applied its standard test
Lemon v. Kurtzman
(1971), holding
that including the crèche did not violate the
establishment clause because officials acted
with a secular purpose, it neither advanced
nor inhibited religion, and it had not created
excessive entanglement between religion and
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra
Day O’Connor announced a test that the
Court occasionally employs when review-
ing establishment clause disputes. Under
that test, the actions of government officials
are constitutionally permissible as long as a
reasonable observer agrees that they do not
endorse a particular religion.
County of Allegheny v. American Civil
Liberties Union
, residents challenged the
actions of government officials of Pitts-
burgh, Pennsylvania, who permitted a
Roman Catholic organization to erect a
crèche in the county courthouse. That dis-
play, which included an angel bearing a reli-
gious banner, posted a sign indicating that
the scene was donated by the private group.
A second display, outside an office build-
ing that was jointly owned by the city and
county, consisted of a 45-foot Christmas
tree, an 18-foot menorah associated with
Hanukkah, and a sign bearing a message
that the city salutes liberty during the holi-
day season. The menorah was owned by
a Jewish religious organization, but it was
stored, erected, and taken down by the city.
After a federal trial court rejected the suit,
the Third Circuit reversed in the residents’
behalf and forbade officials from allowing
the displays because they had the impermis-
sible effect of endorsing religion. On further
review, the Supreme Court—in a judgment
containing five different opinions—affirmed
that the first display violated the establish-
ment clause. The Court ruled that insofar as
county officials associated themselves with
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