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Q: Christmas is coming and I have lots of questions. Can I decorate my classroom, have my students read or write about the holiday, invite parents to a holiday assembly?

A: You need to answer some questions for me to address yours. For example, have you reviewed your school board policies to make sure you are following local rules and requirements? Do you have educational objectives for reading and writing assignments based on your local curriculum and the Standards of Learning? Are you using books and materials approved by your school board, taken from the school library or reviewed by your building administrator? Do you celebrate Christmas or teach something about Christmas celebrations? Are you sharing your personal religious beliefs and practices or focusing on history, culture, and custom? Will you excuse students from participating in holiday events? Do you decorate, teach and plan activities around other religious holidays, during December AND at other times of the year?

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious practices but may teach about religion. Numerous court decisions deal with prayer at school events ranging from graduations to football games. But only one significant case touches on how schools deal with religious holidays. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reviewed a Sioux Falls, South Dakota School Board policy calling for instruction in the historical and cultural roots of religious holidays, and permitting public performance of religious music, poetry and drama as part of the educational effort of the school. The Court of Appeals upheld the school board policy and the U. S. Supreme Court let the Appeals Court decision stand.     

As a teacher you have to distinguish between secular education and religious celebration. Your UniServ Director can help you review local rules, assess your practices, and consider whether your holiday spirit crosses a legal line into religious observance.

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