Provides Guidance to Public Schools on Religious Literature and Holidays


December 8, 2006

CONTACT: Rita Sklar or Holly Dickson

LITTLE ROCK - With the winter holiday season approaching and with the intent of avoiding potential conflict during what is a joyous season for millions, today the ACLU of Arkansas sent out letters to Arkansas school superintendents giving guidance on issues regarding religion and the public schools. The letter addresses two issues: whether there is a place for religious holidays in the public schools, and whether or not schools may make religious material available to students.

“I believe the reason there is often so much contention about religion and the public schools is the fact that most of us do not receive an adequate education about how the Bill of Rights protects our rights, and what that means in practical situations — I know I didn’t.” said ACLU of Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar. “I was never taught in school that the reason America has the greatest religious diversity and religious freedom on the planet is because we have government-free religion, for example, and I believe many of us don’t see that when the government supports or promotes religion, religion is no longer government-free.”

The letter addresses the question of religious holidays first. It reminds superintendents that the proper role of schools is to educate students in a fair, unbiased, objective, and balanced manner, with respect for different religions. The letter says, in part, “The First Amendment balances freedom of religious belief and expression with freedom from state-imposed expression... [P]ublic schools should not inhibit or disparage religious belief or non-belief, nor should public schools promote, sponsor, or endorse any particular religion, belief, or religious activities. Any public school’s approach to religious holidays should be offered in the spirit of education, and not promoting religious beliefs. ... Public schools may provide instruction about religious traditions and beliefs ... and schools may teach students about religious holidays. ... Education about religion or religious holidays must be explained in an unbiased and objective manner. However, schools may not use their influence to promote a particular religious belief or belief over non-belief either through instruction, observance of holidays as religious events, or encouraging students to observe religious holidays.”

The letter also discusses the issue of school performances, noting that school concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music, but that concerts should not be dominated by religious music, especially when they coincide with a particular religious holiday or are used to promote religion. Plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle or Nativity pageants are entirely inappropriate for the public school setting.

Last week, the Baxter Bulletin newspaper reported that Pinkston Middle School in Mountain Home announced to students during lunch that Bibles were available for students outside the cafeteria, and that any student wanting a Bible could pick one up. The ACLU asked the Mountain Home Public School District to discontinue this practice and included this subject in the letter the ACLU planned to send to superintendents on religious holidays. “A school’s participation in or supervision of such activities, such as the Gideons’ Bible distribution, impermissibly suggests that the program is a valid part of a legally required education,” says the letter. “The practice also carries the unmistakable message that acceptance of the Bible or other materials is the norm, and that non-adherents are something less than full members of the school community.... [Furthermore, t]here is no difference between school officials allowing Gideons or any other religious group to hand these materials to students personally or to put religious materials out on a table for students to take ‘of their own free will,’ or for the school to put the materials on the table, whether they came from an outside group or another source. What some perceive as a neutral act of ‘allowing’ students to choose whether to take materials is in fact not neutral, and constitutes school action.”

“The purpose of the letter is to assist the schools by outlining common questions and issues and help school officials and students have a less stressful holiday season,” ACLU staff attorney Holly Dickson said. “As we were drafting it, we received a report of another school district where students were told in class to come forward if they wanted to receive a Bible. That’s a hair away from an altar call,” Dickson said, “and it violates the First Amendment.”

“We can’t have the freedom to express our religious beliefs and allow the government to promote religion,” said Sklar, “we just can’t have it both ways.”

The ACLU has published a list of some of the freedom of religious expression cases the ACLU brought in the last few years years. A copy of the letter to school districts and a short list of the freedom of expression cases are available below. The full list is available on the ACLU’s website .

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