This is a slightly edited reprint of the original article - see Footnotes for an explanation & link to the original.1.  article.   If you have questions about this info. call the phone numbers provided.
Update 12/3/2015:  Dr. Buehrer turned these ideas into the  Faith, Freedom and Public_Schools_Education Workshop  .  We took the Workshop idea to our local school board and started a news blog to track the progress here.
Inspiration and Insight for Educators
Welcome to Teachers in Focus
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How to Teach About Religious Holidays

by Eric Buehrer

A few years ago, a (...) 1. music teacher in a school near Grand Rapids, Mich., told me (this...) story.  For years she did not think she could teach her students religious Christmas carols.  (...)  She then learned that the law allowed her to teach the children traditional carols. 

 As she started a lesson on Christmas carols, she explained to the children that they were going to learn some songs about Jesus Christ. Some of her students gasped in disbelief.  When she asked them why they were so shocked, they explained that they thought she was swearing.  To her surprise, the teacher realized these children didn't even know that Jesus was a real person. They only thought it was a name used for cursing! 

 Without understanding Christianity --at least in its broadest outlines-- it is impossible to understand either American culture or history.  Yet many teachers--even Christian teachers --are reluctant to teach about religion in their classrooms. In addition to a general squeamishness about the topic, most teachers do not understand that the law allows them to teach about religion in the classroom. 

 I see this all the time in teacher workshops I conduct on religion in the curriculum. As part of the workshop, I show teachers maps of the world and ask them if they can identify the dominant religion of India (Hinduism), Laos (Buddhism), Syria (Islam) and Israel (Judaism). As they correctly name the major religion of each country, I ask them if it would be appropriate to teach students something about that religion in order for students to understand the culture. The teachers nod in agreement. 

 Then I show them a map of the United States and they all chuckle at the "gotcha."  The fact is, we feel comfortable teaching about another country's dominant religion, but stare at our shoes in embarrassment when it comes to our own. 

 Yet, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the institution Americans have set up to educate their children (namely, public schools) will teach them about American culture--including its major religion. Religious holidays are a perfect opportunity to do that. Here are some simple steps you can use during the holidays to bring instruction about religion into your classroom or school. 

1. Know What You Can and Cannot Do

Of course the most important thing you need to know is what's allowed and what's not.  The good news is that teachers can do far more than most people realize.   In the Supreme Court case of Lynch vs. Donnelly, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that the Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state. In fact,  it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any ... . Anything less would require the "callous indifference" we have said was never intended by the Establishment Clause. Indeed, we have observed, such hostility would bring us into war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment's guaranty of free exercise of religion.

This is exactly the opposite of what many teachers and administrators assume. For example, it is all too common for a school principal--trying to remain neutral toward religion--to send teachers a memo forbidding them to use the word "Christmas" or to sing Christmas carols in their classrooms. School librarian Mary Hauser had such an experience in her Southern California school.

 "Just as December started," Mary said, "the principal put in his weekly bulletin that, 'we're approaching Christmas and you are reminded that you are not allowed to have any religious songs (...) or activities revolving around Christmas because this would offend some people.'" 

 But such action puts the school in a position of prohibiting teachers from instructing students about an important aspect of American culture. At best, it is an example of the "callous indifference" the Court warned against. At worst, it could be considered showing hostility toward Christianity. 

 By knowing the law, you can begin correcting such misunderstandings. For a list of good legal resources, check out the "Legal Resources" sidebar.

 One thing to remember, though: Although the law gives wide latitude for teaching about religion, public school teachers may not teach lessons that are worshipful, devotional or evangelistic in nature --no altar calls to the chalkboard. This can be difficult for some teachers who feel they are somehow denying Christ by not encouraging students to believe the Bible stories. But public school teachers must observe the distinction between teaching about 2. religion and instructing in religion. 

 

2. Understand the Non-Legal Objections
In addition to knowing what's legal, you should also be prepared to answer some of the non-legal objections that your fellow teachers and administrators may have. Here are a couple of common objections:
Objection One: 
If we teach about Christian holidays, we must give equal time to teaching about all holidays. 
 The truth is, no court has mandated equal time for all religious holidays.  This reasoning comes from our sense of fairness. However, fairness doesn't always mean equality. Proportionality can also be fair. 
 Examples of this are all around us. For instance, a rookie teacher and a 30-year veteran may both have the same number of students and teach the same subjects, yet they do not receive the same pay. Their pay is proportional to their years of service. Still, we say it is fair. 
Similarly, although the United States Senate is comprised of equal numbers of senators from each state, the House of Representatives is comprised of different numbers from different states, which are proportional to the states' population. Unequal, but fair. 
 
Using the principle of proportionality, the way to decide which holidays to emphasize is to ask:
A. Which religion or religions have had the most influence in shaping American culture? 
B. Which religions have a prominent influence in the local community? 
In other words, the amount of time spent on each holiday should be determined by its relevance and influence in American culture and the local community. Teachers should not leave students with the impression that all religions have had an equal impact on American culture. 
Objection Two: 
If we teach about the religious nature of holidays such as Christmas or Easter, some students will feel left out.
Teachers should never denigrate anyone's religious beliefs. But neither should they withhold significant cultural information about America regarding religion. Christian beliefs in America have a major impact on such things as our political debates, our social values and our legal system. No matter what faith traditions they follow, all of your students will be impacted by these Christian beliefs --whether your students agree with them are not. A good education must include accurate information about the major religion in America.
. 
3. Share Ideas for Teaching Religion 
Needless to say, all the good arguments in the world won't change anything unless you have good lesson ideas. Fortunately, there is no shortage of engaging, constitutionally sound ideas for teaching about religion during the holiday. Below are a few suggestions for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. 

 
Thanksgiving Lesson Plan.  [Expanded, printable lesson. click here ]
  • Have students read various presidential proclamations. You can find them at the library in The Public Papers of Presidents, published by the U.S. Government Printing Office. You can also find them on the Gateways to Better Education Web site at www.gtbe.org. (See the "Legal Resources" sidebar.7/11/05
  • Have students create a Thanksgiving (paper) incorporating a quote from a proclamation of their choosing. 
  • Discuss the topic of prayer. Since many people in American culture express thankfulness to God by praying, discuss with students what prayer means and give historical examples of times when American leaders prayed or admonished people to pray. It is perfectly acceptable to teach about 2. this act which is highly regarded by so many Americans regardless of racial and cultural backgrounds. 
Christmas Lesson Plan.  [Expanded, printable lesson. click here ]
  • Have your class read from the Bible about the birth of Jesus. The federal court case of Florey vs. Sioux Falls in 1980 confirmed the fact that "music, art, literature and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday." 
  • Have Christian students in your class share what their families or churches are doing to celebrate Christmas. 
  • Have students speculate on the question: What if Jesus had never been born? To help students make the connection between the birth of Jesus and their lives, you can prepare a lesson on the ways Christianity has affected American history. You might include such things as: the Pilgrims' motivation for coming to America, the Declaration of Independence, the phrase on our coin, "In God We Trust," the abolition movement, and how the Rev. Martin Luther King's Christian faith motivated him in the civil rights movement. 
  • Lead a class discussion on teachings of Jesus that are often referred to in American culture. These teachings are encapsulated in such expressions as "Do unto others...," "Go the extra mile," "Turn the other cheek" and "the good Samaritan." 
  • Read to students from Luke 2 3., and teach them related vocabulary words for a language arts unit. 
Easter Lessons
  • Read Luke 22 4. and continue to the end of the book. (...)
  • Have students use encyclopedias to write a (...) report on why and how Easter is celebrated in America. 
  • Ask a Christian student's family to share what they are doing to celebrate Easter. 
  • Have students pretend they are newspaper reporters and interview a local member of the clergy and other community members about Easter. What will they be doing for Easter? Why is Easter important to them? Have each student write an article based on the interview. 
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, lessons that proselytize students or involve them in acts of devotion and worship are inappropriate for public schools. But within those bounds, you can boldly teach about Christian holidays and the values that have shaped American history and contemporary culture. 
 
Eric Buehrer is president of Gateways to Better Education, a national ministry giving practical help to Christian public school families. You can visit their Web site at www.gtbe.org.
 
Legal Resources 
What can you legally teach about religion and religious holidays in the public schools? Here are some places you can go to find out. 
Gateways to Better Education (GTBE)          Phone: (800) 929-1163 .
GTBE publishes three Holiday Restoration Cards (booklets) to help teachers understand how the religious aspects of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter can be taught in the classroom. The cards include legal documentation and lesson plan ideas that pass constitutional muster. They also include the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines on the religious rights of students at school. For other resources, visit their Web site at www.gtbe.org.
The Christian Legal Society (CLS)          Phone: (703) 642-1070 .
In addition to several other resources, CLS offers the booklet Religious Holidays in the Public Schools --a widely endorsed statement of what's legal and what's not in the public schools. The booklets are also available on their Web site at  http://www.clsnet.org/
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)          Phone: (757) 226-2489 .
The ACLJ defends Christians against infringement of their religious rights. Among the gems you can find on their Web site are several legal information letters, including a "School Holiday Letter" ( www.aclj.org/ILxmssch.html )5. and an "Easter Celebration Information Letter" ( www.aclj.org/ILeaster.html ) 6..


This article appeared in Teachers in Focus magazine. Copyright © 2000 Eric Buehrer. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

FOOTNOTES
Hisways USA, Inc. has reprinted this article with slight edits from the FOF web site for the following purposes:
       1.)  The Teachers in Focus website was terminated approximately: 4/2005 (
thp://www.family.org/cforum/teachersmag/features/a0013367.html),
       2.)  To broaden its application for all K-12 grade levels, and 
       3.)  To provide good links for some of the broken links in the
'Legal Resources' section - see designated footnotes.
1. This page has six (6) edits (text removal) indicated by " (...) ".
2.  "about" and "in" embolden for emphasis.
3.  'Luke 2' only has 1207 words in the KJV.
4.  Chapters of Luke 22 -24 have 3567 total words in the KJV.
5.  Updated Links 11/29/11 "Religious Holiday Displays Information Letter"by the ACLJ  for:
             Citizens (pdf) ;
             Local governments (pdf) ;

6.  Ibid
7.  Additional updates are dated or/and magenta color coded.
8.  12/18/07 Hisways USA "Liberty Defenders" A handy printout of Holy Day attorneys who will defend your religious rights.    http://Hisways.org/liberty/index.htm ,

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