If your public school got tangled in church-state issues earlier this month while observing the religious holidays, a broad coalition of experts offers some tips for next time.
The key advice is that religious holidays present a special opportunity for schools to do something they've generally neglected: to teach about religions, but not to celebrate them.
The guidelines, called "Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers," were produced by representatives of 16 religious and educational groups that embrace conservative and liberal philosophies.
The holidays allow educators the opportunity to focus on the origins, histories and significance of the celebrations, the guidelines say, adding: "If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief."
Charles C. Haynes, director of the Americans United Research Foundation in Silver Spring, Md., and former professor of world religions, sparked the academic, interfaith effort.
"If public schools are going to survive, they're going to have to find an appropriate place for religion in the functioning of the schools," he said. "Without it, public education is going to suffer and be torn apart."
Haynes said that a fear of controversy has led to silence about religion in schools. "The irony is that silence about it has led to more controversy and division," he said. "It's not appropriate simply to remove religion. Evidence is that the proper role of religion in school begins to restore faith in the public schools."
However, that role is not religious advocacy or devotions in schools, but teaching about religions and understanding their ideas and practices, the guidelines emphasize.
They also maintain that with Christians celebrating Christmas and Jews celebrating Hanukkah each December, it would "be unrealistic" to ban all seasonal activities, but they should focus on educational purposes "for all students."
"Holiday concerts may appropriately include music related to Christmas and Hanukkah, but religious music should not dominate," the pamphlet says, advocating a mix of non-religious holiday music with the religious.
"Any dramatic productions should emphasize cultural aspects of the holidays. Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate in the public school setting."