Written by Don Byrd

It’s the holiday season. That means, among other things, that public school programming faces all kinds of dilemmas while navigating the rights of students to express their religious beliefs, and the rights of students to be free of religious coercion and an official endorsement of religion by school officials. Here’s a smattering of recent news stories that demonstrate this tension and the responsibility school officials face to protect the religious liberty of all students.

  • The Webster Parish School District, already mired in litigation this year over sweeping claims that school officials improperly promoted Christianity, realized almost too late that a planned field trip to a community theater production would include a significant section with Christian themes.  Officials announced that the field trip had to be cancelled in light of the court order in place which resolved the litigation. Eventually, the event was transformed into an optional trip for families.
  • In Newaygo, Michigan, a battle is brewing over the display of the Three Wise Men atop a public school. A civil rights group demanded that school officials remove the display, arguing,“You certainly can’t have religious symbols on the top of the public elementary school.” Thus far, however, school officials have refused to take it down.
  • Meanwhile, USAToday reports on a Nebraska principal who has been placed on leave for barring Christmas-themed decorations out of respect for cultural difference, and encouraged winter-themed decorations that avoid references to Christmas. After a letter from Liberty Counsel describing the principal’s policy memo as “Orwellian,” the school district announced that the memo “does not reflect the Elkhorn School District’s policies.”

For more on this theme, the Washington Post over the weekend re-published a piece by Education reporter Valerie Strauss that attempts to articulate “what the law allows and forbids” in this area. 

And for more detail on the general theme of religion in public schools, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Public Schools issue page.