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Opinion TRI issues guidelines for celebrating Christmas in public

John W. WhiteheadHoping to alleviate ongoing confusion arising from political correctness over the do’s and don’ts of celebrating Christmas in schools, workplaces and elsewhere, The Rutherford Institute has issued its “Twelve Rules of Christmas” guidelines. Over the years, The Rutherford Institute (TRI) has been contacted by parents and teachers alike complaining about schools changing their Christmas concerts to “winter holiday programs” and renaming Christmas “winter festival” or cancelling holiday celebrations altogether to avoid offending those who do not celebrate the various holidays.

“When I was a child in the 1950s, the magic of Christmas, which hinges on the spiritual nature of the holidays, was promoted in the schools. We sang Christmas carols in the classroom. There were cutouts of the Nativity scene on the bulletin board, along with the smiling, chubby face of Santa and Rudolph. We were all acutely aware that Christmas was more than a season to receive — it was a special time to give as well,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Unfortunately, times have changed. Turmoil surrounds our schools. Police officers walk the hallways, and embattled teachers often act more like wardens than instructors. And in their politically correct zeal to avoid anything that might be construed as offensive, school officials have reduced Christmas to little more than a winter holiday, lacking all of the magic, fun, goodwill and cultural significance that I knew as a child. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is room for Christmas in the classroom, constitutionally and culturally, without schools officials having to play the part of the Grinch.”

In issuing the guidelines, Institute attorneys cited incidents in which, for example, a public school 6th-grade class was asked to make “holiday cards” to send to the troops but were told they could not use the words “Merry Christmas” on their cards. Similarly, nativity displays, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, wreaths, candy canes and even the colors red and green have been banned as part of the effort to avoid any reference to Christmas, Christ or God. Thanksgiving has also come under fire in recent years. Several years ago, Institute attorneys were contacted by a concerned parent who remarked that whereas in previous years teachers had been told not to mention Christmas, Easter or anything relating to God, they could no longer even mention the word “Thanksgiving” because “the pilgrims offended the Indians” and “Thanksgiving was never intended to be thanks to God.” Another parent was concerned when she received a letter from school officials directing classroom mothers not to use plates and napkins with Thanksgiving printed on them at their children’s fall parties. As she recounted, “It seems like they are worried about offending just one person and are worried about lawsuits. In the past, this school has gone from ‘winter’ parties that banned red and green cupcakes and napkins, to banning any winter party in fear that it may be mistaken for Christmas."

The 12 Rules of Christmas

In order to clear up much of the misunderstanding over what can or cannot be done in terms of celebrating the holiday, the following 12 rules are offered:

1. Public school students’ written or spoken personal expressions concerning the religious significance of Christmas (e.g., Tshirts with the slogan, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season”) may not be censored by school officials absent evidence that the speech would cause a substantial disruption.

2. So long as teachers are generally permitted to wear clothing or jewelry or have personal items expressing their views about the holidays, Christian teachers may not be prohibited from similarly expressing their views by wearing Christmas-related clothing or jewelry or carrying Christmas-related personal items.

3. Public schools may teach students about the Christmas holiday, including its religious significance, so long as it is taught objectively for secular purposes such as its historical or cultural importance, and not for the purpose of promoting Christianity.

4. Public school teachers may send Christmas cards to the families of their students so long as they do so on their own time, outside of school hours.

5. Public schools may include Christmas music, including those with religious themes, in their choral programs if the songs are included for a secular purpose such as their musical quality or cultural value or if the songs are part of an overall performance including other holiday songs relating to Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or other similar holidays.

6. Public schools may not require students to sing Christmas songs whose messages conflict with the students’ own religious or nonreligious beliefs.

7. Public school students may not be prohibited from distributing literature to fellow students concerning the Christmas holiday or invitations to church Christmas events on the same terms that they would be allowed to distribute other literature that is not related to schoolwork.

8. Private citizens or groups may display crèches or other Christmas symbols in public parks subject to the same reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions that would apply to other similar displays.

9. Government entities may erect and maintain celebrations of the Christmas holiday, such as Christmas trees and Christmas light displays, and may include crèches in their displays at least so long as the purpose for including the crèche is not to promote its religious content and it is placed in context with other symbols of the Holiday season as part of an effort to celebrate the public Christmas holiday through its traditional symbols.

10. Neither public nor private employers may prevent employees from decorating their offices for Christmas, playing Christmas music, or wearing clothing related to Christmas merely because of their religious content so long as these activities are not used to harass or intimidate others.

11. Public or private employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs require that they not work on Christmas must be reasonably accommodated by their employers unless granting the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

12. Government recognition of Christmas as a public holiday and granting government employees a paid holiday for Christmas does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Individuals with legal questions or in need of legal assistance should call (434)978-3888, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or complete the online legal help form available at www.rutherford.org.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and editor of GadflyOnline.com. Contacted him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .





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