S5, Ep. 22: Spring break and religious holidays

Amanda and Holly examine how our country tends to recognize various holidays and the ways Christian privilege shows up in doing so

Mar 28, 2024

There are many religious holidays in the spring, but not all are given the same public acknowledgment – from government-sponsored events to time off from school and work. Amanda Tyler and Holly Hollman discuss how Christian privilege shows up in how our country recognizes and accommodates certain holidays, as well as how holidays help us understand and celebrate the religious pluralism in our country. 

Segment 1 (starting at 00:38): The March Madness of spring break and public school holidays

Access “A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools” published decades ago by the National PTA and the First Amendment Center with funding from the Freedom Forum at this link on BJC’s website


Segment 2 (starting at 15:05): Religious holidays and public officials/elected leaders

Read about Dr. Anthea Butler’s experience at the White House St. Patrick’s Day celebration in this reflection on her Substack. 


Segment 3 (starting at 24:00): Reflections on Christian privilege

Amanda mentioned her forthcoming book, How to End Christian Nationalism. It releases October 22, and it is available for preorder at endchristiannationalism.com

Read the story by Kevin Reynolds in the Salt Lake Tribune discussing Muslim players fasting during March Madness, which coincides with Ramadan: BYU doesn’t have to play on Sundays. So should the NCAA better accommodate Muslim athletes during Ramadan?

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 22: Spring break and religious holidays (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity) 


Segment 1: The March Madness of spring break and public school holidays (starting at 00:23)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. In celebration of spring and recognizing that there are a lot of celebrations this time of year, we are devoting this edition of Respecting Religion to holidays, particularly religious holidays, and the public policy dimensions of religious holidays, as well as how religious holidays help us understand pluralism.

AMANDA: Ramadan Kareem to any of our listeners who are Muslim. And we know that springtime is full of religious holidays in many different traditions. We all enjoy time away from work and school to celebrate and be in community with fellow believers, and we know that so much of American society has Christian privilege built into it, which is why we as Christians have a responsibility to learn about and acknowledge it.

HOLLY: We also know that issues of public acknowledgments of religious holidays, particularly government-sponsored acknowledgments of religion and religious holidays, and the public’s understanding of them sometimes get mixed up in conversations.

For instance, some schools in the D.C. area are currently on spring break, which covers what many Christians call Holy Week leading up to Easter. It’s a significant time in the Christian calendar, during which churches hold special services, and that time often but doesn’t always overlap with significant holidays in Judaism and Islam. So we’re going to talk about that and what ramifications that has for the Christian majority and minority faiths.

AMANDA: We also thought it would be a good time to talk about ways to celebrate religious holidays while maintaining government neutrality in spiritual matters, so that we can all coexist in a pluralistic society.

And before we get into the topic of religious holidays, there’s another observance that happens every March, Holly. March Madness is in full swing across the country, but it had a special significance for you and your family this year.

HOLLY: Yeah. It was quite a treat to be in Brooklyn for March Madness and to enjoy that fun up close. And I was really hoping, Amanda, that it would take me to Dallas next weekend, but my team didn’t quite make it. But they had quite a great run, and I’m really thankful to my son who got us there. It was a great experience. And I’ll be honest as well: It did lead to me missing Palm Sunday at my home church.

AMANDA: An excused absence for Palm Sunday, for sure. It was so exciting, Holly, to watch this ride. You know, as you know, I’m a huge sports fan. I have a young sports fan in my house. We are all crazy about March Madness, but it took on special significance to actually know a player playing on one of the teams this year. So congratulations and memories you’ll have forever.

HOLLY: Exactly. I will say my pastor and church family were quite excited for me, so I don’t think they were questioning my devotion to the faith or participation in my local church.

Well, with that, turning to the issue of religious holidays, we’ve often talked about them at BJC from a perspective of how do we honor religious freedom in the public schools. And in the public schools, we know that we come together without regard to faith, and all students are welcome.

And schools try to be accommodating of various religious faiths. At the same time, they have an obligation not to establish religion, not to take the role of individuals or church communities, of other religious communities in advancing religion.

And actually, the question of how you treat religious holidays in the public schools is one that has been subject to guidelines for many decades now.

AMANDA: That’s right. Going back decades, we at BJC have supported guidelines that help ensure public schools protect religious freedom for students without violating principles of No Establishment of religion by the government, which in this case, the government is the public schools.

And so there is a classic brochure, called “A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools.” It was published by the National PTA and the First Amendment Center with funding from the Freedom Forum, and it is available on our website, and we’ll provide a link to that in show notes.

But in that brochure, this is the guidance offered on how to celebrate religious holidays in public schools. I’ll just read from it: “Religious holidays offer opportunities to teach about religion in elementary and secondary schools. Teaching about religious holidays, which we encourage, is different from celebrating religious holidays, which is not. Study of holidays serves academic goals of educating students about history and cultures, as well as about the traditions of particular religions.”

HOLLY: Yeah. That’s the beginning of the answer to a very commonplace question which is: How should religious holidays be treated in public schools? It recognizes that different holidays really provide a rich source of understanding cultural differences, and really studying religious holidays could come in as an important matter of education, both in social studies and history and other aspects of public school education.

It’s an opportunity to really embrace pluralism which is a significant part of American culture, as well as learning about religion, which the guidelines emphasize is a legitimate secular purpose of the public schools.

AMANDA: And I think important here are the different roles and responsibilities of the government actors and the private actors, the government actors being the public schools, the administrators, the teachers, the private actors being the parents and other caregivers and the children themselves.

And so we often talk about public schools as being these laboratories of democracy, these places where people from many different backgrounds and perspectives come together to work together, to learn together.

And so I appreciate that in this brochure, the preamble to all of these questions and answers states, “Parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education.”

And so there’s a private role for religious holidays, and that’s where religious holidays are celebrated. But when it talks about educating about different holidays, then that’s where the role of the public schools can play an important part in the overall education of citizenry.

HOLLY: Under that question, the guidelines go on to say that, “The use of religious symbols as examples of religious or cultural heritage is permissible as a teaching aid or resource,” which, of course, that’d be part of learning about a religion is to recognize these different symbols, to have discussions about how they might be used, how symbols differ and different aspects of a particular faith.

We know from the Christian tradition, for example, that symbols change based on actual denominations within Christianity. And so there’s a lot of room for learning by being exposed to different religious symbols and learning about how they’ve been used in religious or cultural ways.

Of course, sometimes that leads to really interesting questions about the distinction between religion and culture, which, of course, is not always a bright line, but it is something that, again, provides fertile ground for interesting conversations among students and in an educational setting that can really, you know, enrich us.

AMANDA: Well, speaking of interesting conversations, one of the stories in my childhood lore is, you know, I grew up in public schools. I came home my first year in public school as a kindergarten student around the time of Easter, and I told my mom — I was like, Mom, these kids at school, they think Easter is just about the Easter bunny; they don’t know anything about what happened at Easter and about Jesus and about how he was crucified and he was on the cross and then he was in the tomb and then he was raised from the dead. And so I told them. And my mom was like kind of horrified. She was like, What did they say? And I was like, Oh, they didn’t get it; they don’t even know what it means to be dead, you know.

HOLLY: [Laughing.]

AMANDA: And so, I mean, it was just this — once you start talking about holidays at schools, there’s a role for the teachers, but then you don’t know what students are doing and having —

HOLLY: That’s right.

AMANDA: — in conversations, so that was a way — you know, here I was, just sharing about my personal faith at this early age, hopefully not infringing too much on the Free Exercise rights of my fellow kindergartners at that point.

HOLLY: Exactly. And sometimes we do hear real controversies in that way, because while your mother was really attuned to really just diversity and the separate role of her leading you in the faith and your good Sunday school education, church education, and the distinction in your public schools, you know, occasionally communities do have to wrestle with controversies between families and expressions of religion out of the mouths of young children.

But, of course, we believe that young Amanda Tyler should be free to speak in kindergarten that way and that teachers can handle that and direct the conversation back to the educational understanding of the holidays that they were planning to address.

AMANDA: Yeah. Just some light banter on the playground that year, I guess.

HOLLY: Of course, religious symbols should only be displayed on a temporary basis as part of an academic program. I think we would think differently, of course, if there were permanent religious symbols in a classroom, particularly religious holiday symbols. Again, very important to think about the educational context of using religious symbols in the public school.

The guidelines also note that sacred music may be sung or played as part of a school’s academic program. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music, so that’s just, you know, putting out there, of course, religious music as not somehow prohibited in an educational setting. It’d be very hard to have a strong musical education without sacred music, I would say.

Occasionally there are controversies about the use of religious music in public schools, though I think these guidelines are still good policy as well as consistent with the law.

AMANDA: And this is just a place, as we said at the beginning, to be aware of Christian privilege in the public schools, that I think it’s relatively common to have Christian sacred music as part of different religious celebrations in schools, less common to have other examples of sacred music in public schools.

So if we are going to have it be an educational opportunity, then be cognizant and show the rich diversity of cultural expressions of religious holidays from many different traditions.

HOLLY: That’s important, and we recognize that different communities face different problems in this area. And when I say, problems, I mean conversations about what is appropriate in the public schools.

Sometimes in school districts where there is a variety of music from different religious traditions, say, around the Christmas holidays, there sometimes are conversations about like, oh, why can we have all these different cultural songs but not have any from a Christian perspective. And, of course, that’s not the law.

And I’m not sure how often that’s the case, but sometimes audiences are sort of primed to be looking to say, Wait a minute, are we being fair; are we being fair to my faith? So, again, the guidelines are sound, and the focus, as it should be, is on education and not in any way harming religion, but understanding that religion is something that a public school education should include as a matter of understanding, and it comes up in lots of different areas.

It says in the guidelines: “The use of music, art, drama, or literature with religious themes is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum but not if used as a vehicle for promoting religious belief.”

And, you know, these guidelines were written at a time when, I think, the standards at the Court were a little bit stronger than they are now, but I think it’s still really important to recognize that the Court has not said that public schools are in any way promoting religion, advancing religion, in ways that would interfere with one’s Free Exercise rights or would violate that duty of the public schools to ensure that there is no preference for any kind of religion but that all students are treated equally, regardless of their affiliation with religion.

I think the guidelines, by mentioning holidays, are recognizing that it’s just one prominent example that we can explore to ensure that public schools are teaching about religion and not advancing religion or promoting religion through some kind of government-sponsored religious exercise.


Segment 2: Religious holidays and public officials/elected leaders (starting at 15:05)

HOLLY: Beyond public schools, there are, of course, many opportunities where we, as Americans, see leadership from government officials on our religious pluralism. Probably most significantly, I think about many times seeing government officials participating in various religious celebrations — celebrations that are important to them personally, but also where they might host a different kind of religious celebration, acknowledging the religious diversity in their communities.

AMANDA: That’s right, Holly. It really is common. And I had the opportunity to experience some of those celebrations when I served as district director to a member of Congress for four years. And part of the role of a district director is to organize the member of Congress’s time when they’re back in their district, and in order for them to be in touch with their constituents in ways and not just in more formal ways of them actually having meetings with a member of Congress in their office but in going into the community.

And so we would often meet with different religious groups and sometimes in their houses of worship and sometimes in other community spaces to help celebrate holidays. And that is, I think, an important part of the role of a representative: to learn about their constituencies and to be there to mark and celebrate their religious occasions that are also cultural occasions.

That’s not an inappropriate role for a government official. Again, they’re not doing so to endorse a particular religion over another in their official capacity, but rather to be with the community. And for me personally, it was a great educational experience, to be in a lot of different spaces that I would not normally have been in.

HOLLY: And, of course, the White House is probably the country’s most visible venue for religious celebrations that honor America’s religious pluralism. And sometimes they inspire conversations about what’s appropriate –whether the White House is somehow, you know, advancing religion by having some kind of Christian holiday celebration, or if they’re not doing that, if they’re somehow advancing some other religion by participating in celebrations of other religions.

And I thought about that a little bit recently because I saw some news about President Biden’s recent St. Patrick’s Day celebration. He hosted a brunch with Catholic leaders. And it just made me think about this idea of the proper role of religion in government and kind of how we look at that.

First I would note that the White House is the president’s house, and so you would expect a president like President Biden — who is a Catholic, who speaks very openly about his faith — to want to have celebrations that are aligned with his Catholicism, and that’s kind of an expression of his life.

But also it makes me think about how the White House is sometimes referred to as the People’s House, so similarly, Amanda, to what you talked about, a representative wanting to be in touch with the people in his or her community, the White House is a place that would welcome different communities in and would have services that are quite religious in nature, recognizing our religious diversity.

You wouldn’t expect them to be cultural or educational only, like we were talking about in the public schools. Of course, the people gathered there would be gathered voluntarily, not by some compulsion. These are adult gatherings, and they are an opportunity to recognize religious diversity and the many different religious influences in our country.

AMANDA: It’s interesting that the example you provide, Holly, is St. Patrick’s Day brunch, because — I don’t know — for many people, they might not think of that as a religious holiday, the way that it’s observed in a lot of communities like my own. In the city of Dallas, there’s a large parade marking St. Patrick’s Day that to a casual observer, doesn’t look very religious in many ways. So it’s interesting that this was a more religious event and that actually the invitation list was of Catholic leaders.

HOLLY: Yeah. As I learned about that, it made me curious about that very point, Amanda, because I typically just think of wearing the green and, you know, it being a good theme for hosting a pub crawl or a 5K or something like that. I was curious about this event.

And, you know, you can find it easily — YouTube videos of it — and how President Biden used it to talk about his Irish heritage, so the cultural importance of being Irish Catholic, but also the religious importance to him, and basically saying that many people of Irish heritage also are Catholic and hold very strong to certain Catholic ideals and recognizing that is important to them.

AMANDA: And I learned about this event because I read the newsletter from Dr. Anthea Butler who is a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s the author of White Evangelical Racism and is one of the leading voices out there combating Christian nationalism and white Christian nationalism.

But she is a Catholic leader herself, and she was invited to this brunch. And we’ll link to her Substack article about it, but a really personal and moving story about when she had the opportunity to meet President Biden at the event.  She said to him, you know, Thank you for the invitation, Mr. President; I’m happy to meet you and thank you for all you do for our country, but I need to tell you something. My mother is Catholic. She watches mass every day on YouTube and prays the rosary and the Divine Mercies daily. I just want you to know that she’s praying for you.

And then she writes that immediately President Biden’s demeanor changed. He grabbed her hands and pushed up his left sleeve and said, I pray the rosary every day, too; this is my son Beau’s rosary, and I wear it always. And then he said to her, Let’s call your mom. And so she asked for a phone, and President Biden called her mom, and her mom answered the phone, which she was really grateful, and —

HOLLY: Oh, wow.

AMANDA: — said that they had this — she got to have this exchange with the president where they could talk about their faith. And I just thought that was a really beautiful and moving story about the uniting power of religion and about this particular president for whom religion is such a personal and important part of his life and the way that he was able to connect in this particular way.

And Dr. Butler’s presence there also reflects the ethnic and racial diversity of Catholics in America, which I think is not always appreciated, particularly when one thinks about St. Patrick’s Day, which does, as you note, Holly, also have an Irish American celebrative aspect to it.

And, of course, there are celebrations at the White House of faiths that are not the president’s faith, and these happen every year, regardless of who’s in the White House, although that particular administration might draw more attention to some holidays than others.

But, you know, the White House regularly has celebrations in the springtime around Passover, for instance. They also celebrate Ramadan in a number of ways. Usually they have a large dinner celebrating Eid, which is the end of Ramadan, though this year they are looking at other ways to celebrate Ramadan, in part because of the political controversy over the administration’s handling of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and how that particular conflict is causing some tensions with large Muslim communities in particular in the United States.

HOLLY: Yeah. That’s really important to note that various administrations all try to find ways to connect with the American people, and, of course, religious holidays is a way of doing so. And sometimes they would have big events like we’ve mentioned, but other times they are issuing statements. In all cases, these are opportunities for the president to show leadership and understanding of our country’s vast religious diversity and the important role that religion plays in individual lives.



Segment 3: Reflections on Christian privilege (starting at 24:00)

HOLLY: Well, as we mentioned at the outset, you know, it’s typically minority religions that need accommodations for holidays, because societies tend to develop around the needs of the majority. It really puts a responsibility of those in the majority to be fair and to uphold our constitutional standards.

Of course, holidays are just one aspect of religious practice in the way that people adhere to their religious principles and show their devotion and just one place that we can learn to recognize that Christian privilege, and also the complicated nature of providing religious accommodations, whether around holidays or other practices in a way that is fair and recognizes different needs.

AMANDA: And part of this is just, again, raising our own awareness of them. Living in a Christian majority society, which we do — not a Christian nation, as we’ve talked about quite a bit, but a Christian majority society — a lot of our norms and practices have been built around the Christian calendar, in ways, for instance, that we take these long year-end holidays. Well, they don’t just happen to be because of the end of the year.

They happen to align with Christmas, which is a federal holiday, which is, I believe, the only federal holiday that is actually also a religious holiday, but it has developed into a place where workplaces are closed, schools are closed often for a long break, and so Christian students are not put to the choice of, do I finish this exam, do I finish this homework, or do I celebrate my religion.

Same thing happens in many places around the Easter holiday, that many schools either take their spring break to align with Easter — as I know happens in a lot of D.C. area school districts — or as in the case in our school district in Texas, we already had a spring break, but then we have additional days off that just so happen to be Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Now, I don’t think that they just so happen to be those holidays, but those are dates that the school has given off and that, again, accommodate a Christian student in a way that students from other faiths are not accommodated for their religious holidays.

HOLLY: It’s good that you point out these regional differences, because depending on where you live, you might see this differently.

In the D.C. area where my kids went to school in Northern Virginia, you know, spring break often, if not always, coincided with Holy Week, which, of course, did allow a little bit more flexibility if we were planning some kind of Easter celebration with church activities and family, but it also just became the norm that this is the time off — that people aren’t necessarily thinking about their religious holidays but just expecting a break in the school year, in the calendar year.

But often after spring break, there’s a couple extra days off that would coincide with Easter Monday. They would be teacher workdays following spring break as kind of a way that spring break is extended. And we could debate that, whether or not that’s a real secular purpose of having a good, long spring break that accommodates families and school needs or whether this is clear Christian privilege.

You know, it sounds different, Amanda, when you talk about how it is in Dallas, having your spring break earlier and then having these additional days that really do correspond directly with Easter.

AMANDA: Yeah. I mean, I think it is a more obvious show of Christian privilege. And then, you know, I think about Easter as the pinnacle of the Christian year liturgically as the most important holiday, and for the Jewish faith, for instance, that analog is in the fall, is the Days of Awe, which includes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and those dates are rarely given, at least in our region, are rarely given as days off. And in fact, you know, might have testing going on on some of those dates or might have other important school events that leaves a family and a child to the choice of choosing their religion or choosing to participate in their school.

Now, I will say that most school districts, you know, will offer excused absences for religious observances, but it still forces a choice that Christian students aren’t forced to — if they are, indeed, given days off, both around Christmas and around Easter each year.

And it reminds me of a conversation that I had with Professor Sahar Aziz recently. I talked with her as I was working on my forthcoming book, How to End Christian Nationalism. And we talked about her role as not just a law professor who has a particular focus on law and religion, but also as an elected member of her local school board and as a mother and as a Muslim woman. And so she brings all of these perspectives and identities to bear into a conversation that we had around how her school district dealt with school holidays and which days they might consider to have off.

And she raised the issue for her school board about, could we see about an additional day off that would align with one of these other non-Christian holidays. And she said she was really amazed in her pretty progressive community, but she was amazed at the amount of pushback she got and the number of excuses she got from people who just said, you know, we understand the issue but it’s just too complicated; it just would be too hard for us to accommodate it.

And I think that her experience and her telling of the experience really shows how powerful the Christian privilege can be felt, but it is often quite invisible to those of us who hold the Christian privilege, that it often doesn’t occur to people what kind of impact this has on people who are not members of the majority.

And I think as we look to dismantle Christian nationalism, we also look at these more covert examples of Christian privilege, and it’s incumbent on all of us just to raise our awareness around them and think about ways that we can build a more inclusive society that recognizes all religions and not just the majority one.

HOLLY: That story points to not only the importance and the sensitivity that we should bring to bear on these conversations but also the practical realities. It is difficult. It can be complex to accommodate different religions, and what we can often see is in order to avoid doing so, we might emphasize the secular nature of some holidays that have Christian origins.

And so I think it’s important that people understand their local community, are involved in their public schools, that they advocate for policies that, of course, advance education and accommodate their various religious needs. It’s not easy work, but it’s important work.

So beyond accommodating people to have time off for religious holidays, it’s sometimes really difficult, as well as important, to recognize the needs for accommodations, not just for time off but for particular ways that people follow their faith. And here I’ll return to our topic of March Madness and note an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that talks about how this comes up.

In this article, it notes that BYU has an exemption or that the NCAA has altered schedules of tournaments to ensure that BYU does not play on Sundays and then talks about the burden on players who are Muslim and who are observing Ramadan, in that when they play games that are during the day instead of the evening, they’re playing, you know, while they’re fasting.

And while I’m certainly no expert on Ramadan or fasting, I have seen close up the effort and energy that these athletes put on the court, and it seems like it would make a significant difference to come to that way of playing while also observing a fast. It would make a real difference, whether you’re playing during the day or the evening.

The article, I’ll note, just touches on several themes that, Amanda, you and I would note as we talk about this issue of accommodating religion in different areas, and that is that you do have to think broadly about what different religions require and try to approach accommodations in a way that would allow specific religions to have an accommodation that meets their needs. And that can be pretty, you know, complicated, but it’s worth the conversation. It’s worth exploring.

The article also introduces this theme about whether or not that is sort of special treatment in a way that would somehow create some unfairness for other players and the speculation that often comes when we talk about accommodating religion, that it might give some kind of unfair advantage to those who are in that religion.

And, again, this article is just one glimpse into some of those issues. We know that there’s a much larger conversation about religious accommodations, not only in sports but in other aspects of our shared life together. And, you know, there aren’t necessarily easy answers, but it’s something that we should recognize that Christians often don’t have to think about but people of other faiths do.

AMANDA: Yeah. I mean, the Ramadan fast is a fast from sunup to sundown of all food and water. It’s difficult to imagine playing at that level without having water while you’re playing the game. And, you know, I appreciate this article, because it does raise the question. Clearly the NCAA committee was able to work around the BYU exemption.

Could they not set up some kind of system where teams who are selected who have players who are fasting for religious reasons, could they not try to work around that schedule? It’s harder to imagine that they could not accommodate it, since they are accommodating one school.

It just raises important questions about fairness, equality, and living together in a pluralistic society. And I’m, on one level, just pleased to have the journalism to raise these questions and how many challenges so many people are negotiating in our Christian majority society.

HOLLY: That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. For more information, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of this program.

AMANDA: Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.

HOLLY: And you can learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org.

AMANDA: We’d love to hear from you. You can send both of us an email by writing to [email protected]. We’re also on social media @BJContheHill, and you can follow me on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

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HOLLY: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.