News Articles

10/24/97 Scholar urges schools to rethink Halloween

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Maybe it’s time for public schools to take a fresh look at Halloween,” a religious liberty expert suggested in a nationally syndicated column Oct. 19.
“After all, would education suffer if Halloween disappeared?” asked Charles Haynes, scholar-in-residence at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., and editor of its nationally used publication, “Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education.”
Haynes voiced a word of caution, however, to parents opposed to Halloween school functions: Wait until November.
“Canceling traditions, even silly ones, at the last minute makes a lot of people unhappy,” Haynes wrote in his column, distributed via the Gannett News Service.
“Once Oct. 31st has come and gone, call together parents and teachers with a range of views about Halloween, and begin to explore alternatives that might satisfy everyone.
“For example, many schools now substitute harvest festivals or similar celebrations for Halloween. Kids still dress up, celebrate and have fun — without the controversy.”
Another suggestion: “Ask those parents who insist on costume parties and parades to organize them as after-school events for students who want to participate.”
Haynes observed controversy over Halloween functions in public schools “seems to be growing.”
“The first objectors may have been conservative Christians, but others have joined the fray,” Haynes wrote. “More and more parents don’t just want to opt their kids out of Halloween, they want to kill it off altogether.”
Haynes recounted, “In addition to religious objections, some parents are increasingly disturbed by the violent and ugly behavior now associated with this date. There’s more going on than the ‘trick or treat’ we knew as children.”
Of his suggestion that public schools to take a “fresh look” at Halloween, Haynes acknowledged, “Yes, I know. Halloween is popular with many kids (and good for the economy). But is that reason enough to celebrate the holiday in school, especially when it offends so many people?”
At the very least, Haynes advised, “make sure parents can opt their children out. Religious objections must be taken very seriously.”
The opt-out option used in many schools “is a good policy, but it doesn’t work too well when Halloween is pervasive,” Haynes observed. “A Muslim parent (who wants to opt her kids out of Halloween) told me this week that the activities in her district go on for days: The kids read Halloween stories, do Halloween art projects, organize Halloween games, parties and even parades.”
Haynes acknowledged it is difficult “for schools to respond when parents want to get rid of Halloween for everybody. Teachers who are told that a Halloween celebration promotes the occult or fosters the Druid religion get defensive about activities they regard as simply fun and games for kids.
“Legally, there’s little chance that a court will rule Halloween activities in public schools unconstitutional,” Haynes continued. “For First Amendment purposes, the fact that Halloween has religious roots or connotations doesn’t make the cultural celebration of it in school an establishment of religion.
“But just because Halloween may be legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea,” Haynes wrote, suggesting that schools “tone it down. The time could be better spent doing other things.
“Whatever schools do,” Haynes wrote, “they shouldn’t ignore parental concerns about Halloween, especially those motivated by religious convictions. Instead of digging their heels in to defend Halloween, the schools should turn this potential conflict into an opportunity for dialogue.”