Are public school teachers being sued for telling a student “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah?” We don’t think so. In fact, we were not able to locate any court decision on this issue. Why we are debating this issue is puzzling, since wishing students “Merry Christmas” is already legal, and lawsuits about this issue do not exist.

While the legality of Christmas greetings may not be up for current debate, the promotion of the religious songs and symbols of Christmas in public schools is a divisive issue. 

Some parents—especially of minority religions—see Christmas celebrations as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. To many others, anyone who wants to end traditional Christmas celebrations is viewed as antireligious and anti-American. To minimize these misunderstandings, we’ll try to help clarify how public schools may celebrate Christmas or other holidays without violating the Constitution. 

Religious Tests of the Establishment Clause

The First Amendment is made applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the First Amendment, Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When determining whether a school policy violates the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court has developed three tests. Under the Lemon test, a school’s practice is unconstitutional if it offends one of these three conditions: (1) its purpose is religious; (2) its primary effect either advances or impedes religion; or (3) it creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971). 

An alternative to the Lemon test is the “endorsement test,” where a school’s policy will be struck down if the court finds that a reasonable person would perceive the policy as endorsing or disapproving of religion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained that government endorsement of religion is unconstitutional because it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985). 

Finally, under Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “coercion test,” we find that the Establishment Clause is violated if, for example, school officials coerce students to focus on one specific religious holiday. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “If citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect” the diversity of religious belief (Lee v. Weisman, 1985).

The Supreme Court has made clear distinctions between children in schools and adults outside the school setting with regard to Establishment Clause concerns. Specifically, public school students should not feel compelled by the state to tolerate religious messages in a place where attendance is not voluntary (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987). In addition, the Court has observed that K-12 students have impressionable minds and are more likely to be indoctrinated by the presentation of religious material than adults. 

It is important to note, however, that the First Amendment does not eradicate religion from the school environment. On the contrary, the Supreme Court has carefully distinguished between promoting or endorsing religion (which is prohibited) and teaching about religion (which is not). The Court wrote that a person’s education may not be complete “without a study of comparative religion” and that the study of religion “where presented objectively as part of a secular program of education” would not violate the Establishment Clause (Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963).  

A Significant Distinction

It is important for principals, teachers, and parents to recognize that in the United States, Christmas is a national, secular, legal holiday and a religious one. Therefore, there is a way to accommodate those who wish to celebrate Christmas in public schools and those who argue that it is unconstitutional-distinguish the secular from the religious aspects of Christmas.  

Observing the secular aspects of Christmas is clearly constitutional, but promoting the religious aspects is not. Thus an assembly filled with traditional Christmas carols would probably violate the Establishment Clause. This is because the words of such carols (such as “Silent Night” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) clearly promote Christian beliefs, and therefore would be viewed as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. As the Supreme Court noted, “Government may celebrate Christmas in some manner and form, but not in a way that endorses Christian doctrine,” (County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 1989). In contrast, secular Christmas songs (such as “White Christmas” or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”), arguably, do not convey a religious message. Saying the words of the songs clarifies the difference. Similarly, featuring Christmas symbols such as the cross and the nativity scene which convey distinctly religious messages would be unconstitutional. But secular holiday symbols such as candy canes or Christmas lights pose no Establishment Clause problems. For the same reason, school officials may celebrate the nonreligious aspects of other religious holidays. For example, students might make Hamentashen for Purim, dreidels on Hanukkah, or decorate for the Islamic or Buddhist New Year.

Another important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between promoting religion by students and teachers or principals. For example, during Christmas, students should be permitted to give cards to their classmates with the message “Jesus loves you” or during Eid al-Adha, Muslim students might distribute cards that say “Allah loves you.” This is allowed because the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects students’ rights to promote their religious beliefs in public schools if they are not disruptive. But it would clearly be unconstitutional for a teacher or administrator to give Christmas or other religious-type cards to students with the same message.

In sum, the Supreme Court has ruled that teaching, endorsing, or promoting religion in public schools is unconstitutional. However, according to the Court, teaching about religion is not only permitted, it is encouraged.

Christmas Tree shaped by crayonsSidebar: What Principals Need to Know about Public Schools and Religion

  • The Establishment Clause commands that public schools be neutral about religion. This means that schools cannot endorse one religion over another.
  • Public schools may teach about religion objectively in a variety of secular courses, including lessons about pluralism and diversity.
  • The “wall of separation” is higher among K-12 students than among adults because students are young, impressionable, and compelled to be in school.
  • In the context of Christmas, schools may not promote the religious aspects of the holiday but may, if they wish, celebrate the secular songs and symbols of the holiday season. 

Suzanne E. Eckes, JD, PhD, is a professor at Indiana University. She has been widely published on school legal matters.

David M. Schimmel, JD, is the author of numerous school law articles and books. He has taught school law at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Harvard University.