Q: As we move further into December, several teachers have asked whether they may place holiday decorations in their classrooms. Are religious themed decorations permitted?
A: Yes, so long as there is a balance of views and traditions represented.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government entanglement with or promotion of religion. This does not, however, prohibit all religious expression; rather, remaining in compliance with constitutional parameters requires neutrality. As the classroom is an extension of the school district, teachers must be mindful of this obligation to remain neutral when decorating for the holiday. Scenes or symbols associated with winter holidays, including religious related themes, are permitted so long as the display has a legitimate educational purpose and neither advances nor inhibits a particular religious belief. Ultimately, teachers must be careful to avoid any message that encourages or promotes one religion over others, or religion over non-religion, as this could violate the First Amendment.
These constitutional principles have been codified by the Texas Legislature in Education Code, Section 29.920(c). The statute addresses “Winter Celebrations” generally, and begins by reinforcing the importance that, first and foremost, such events must be rooted in an educational objective. “A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays.” Regarding classroom decorations, specifically, the Legislature recognized the sometimes-difficult task of attaining the required level or neutrality and offered up a two-part test to make it simple. “A school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of (1) more than one religion; or (2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.” This means, for example, that a teacher may display a Christmas tree and a menorah together (two religions, Christianity and Judaism), or a nativity scene alongside a snowman (religious and secular) and remain in compliance with both the First Amendment and the Texas Education Code. These same fundamentals are true when selecting holiday music, games, and crafts for the classroom.
The First Amendment is a complex area of law, so please contact your local school law attorney if you seek additional information or have specific questions regarding permissible holiday celebrations at your district.