NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If it’s October, it must be Halloween. Kids are already clamoring for costumes (we’ll see a lot of Harry Potters) and stores are gearing up for the annual economic bonanza.
But for many school administrators, Halloween is no longer any fun. They’re caught in the crossfire between parents who support and parents who oppose Halloween observances in the classroom.
What to do? Eliminating Halloween because of religious objections from some parents angers many others who insist on keeping it as a “fun time for kids.” But ignoring complaints will only further alienate people who already see public schools as hostile to their faith.
The solution might be simpler if Halloween were a First Amendment issue. However, the courts are unlikely to rule that classroom celebrations are an unconstitutional promotion of religion by school officials.
Yes, it’s true that Halloween has religious roots in Samhaim, an ancient Celtic festival. It’s also true that some contemporary religious groups have adopted Halloween as their religious holiday. But in our popular culture, Halloween has long been severed from any religious meaning or intent — particularly in the schools. Thus, despite the fact that some Christian and Muslim parents see Halloween as filled with (negative) religious images and messages, judges will likely view public school celebrations of Halloween as having a secular purpose that neither advances nor endorses religion.
The best way out of this dilemma is for schools to turn the controversy into an opportunity for community dialogue about what’s in the best interest of all students. (I wouldn’t suggest trying this in October, however.)
Halloween supporters (often the majority) sometimes resist discussion of the issue, arguing that the school shouldn’t “cave in” to religious views about a holiday that most kids enjoy.
But some of these same people are themselves quick to complain when they think that administrators are ignoring them. Democratic citizenship requires that we take each other seriously, especially when claims of conscience are involved.
Educators and parents might begin this discussion by asking: How important is Halloween to the educational mission of the school? Just because many of the objections are based on religious convictions doesn’t mean there aren’t educational or civic reasons for rethinking what’s being done in the classroom.
Even if the school decides to keep Halloween, minimal fairness should allow objecting parents to opt their kids out of all Halloween-related activities.
Of course, this might be difficult if Halloween pervades the classroom for days. I had a call recently from the resident of a school district where the bus drivers dress up in costumes and hand out candy as kids get on the bus. It’s hard to opt out of that. At the very least, schools should consider toning things down.
A more robustly fair approach might mean finding alternative “fun activities” that everyone can enjoy. A growing number of schools, for example, now have harvest festivals where kids can learn about the many ways various cultures celebrate the fall season. Other schools turn the Halloween parties and parades into after-school events for those parents and students who choose to participate.
Whatever the outcome, it’s worth the effort to find common ground on this issue. While Halloween may be fun for many kids and good for the economy, insisting on witches and ghosts and goblins in every classroom isn’t worth the risk of alienating parents from their schools.
Haynes is senior scholar/religious freedom programs with the First Amendment Center’s office in Arlington, Va.