Addressing Religious Holiday Inequality in Public Schools: Promoting Tolerance and Fairness

July 19, 2023
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This research paper delves into the issue of inequality concerning the designated day off from school, specifically focusing on Christmas Day, in public schools nationwide. Within this context, the legal implications of having Christmas as the sole holiday and the celebration of religious holidays in public schools will be examined. Additionally, possible solutions to this problem, along with their respective pros and cons, will be discussed.

Arguments for School Holidays on Non-Christian Occasions

Every year, across the country, students eagerly anticipate the holiday season to spend quality time with loved ones and friends during Christmas time. However, what about students of other faiths who celebrate different holidays, such as Hanukkah or Diwali? In most public schools, the only compulsory day off for a religious holiday is Christmas day. This situation often leaves students observing important Jewish, Hindu, or Islamic holidays confined to a classroom rather than honoring their heritage or enjoying time with family and friends. The government should mandate schools to provide time off for significant holidays of religions beyond Christianity.

Reasons This Presents an Issue

The exclusive focus on Christian holidays as mandatory days off creates an apparent problem, suggesting to students of other faiths that their beliefs are less significant or inferior to Christianity, which is not accurate. This disparity fosters a sense of inequality among students following less recognized religions, and this belittlement can lead to hostilities and conflicts between student groups with diverse religious backgrounds, evoking an atmosphere akin to medieval times. Moreover, this policy poses additional dilemmas. For instance, it places students of Jewish faith in a challenging position, where they must choose between attending school during Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) from September 29 to October 1, while most public schools are in session, or respecting their religion by abstaining from school, consequently missing important class material. Similarly, students of other religions are also faced with a difficult choice between prioritizing education or their religious beliefs, a situation that should not arise.

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Laws Concerning Holidays in Public Schools

According to the First Amendment, granting school holidays for any religious occasion, including Christmas, is deemed unconstitutional (Weinberger, 2014). Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, explains that the reason Christmas is observed as a holiday is primarily due to the historical influence of Christianity on the establishment of public schools (Weinberger, 2014). In fact, public schools are not allowed to overtly display Christmas decorations or engage in practices with a strong religious bias during the Christmas season. Nevertheless, they are permitted to teach about the historical context of the holiday, provided it maintains a secular approach. This principle extends to other religious holidays as well, allowing public schools to teach their history as long as it is relevant to the curriculum and not promoted for religious reasons.

Alternatively, if a religious holiday is included in the curriculum, and a student objects to participating in the learning process due to religious beliefs or personal preferences, they have the right to request an excused absence from the class, and teachers must comply with their request. This applies not only to holidays with explicitly religious origins but also to seemingly secular holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day, which might have religious roots. In elementary schools, especially, students frequently request excused absences during such events, as celebrations are often organized for these occasions. Nevertheless, courts have made it clear that this permission to excuse oneself from religious education does not imply that schools have the freedom to teach about religion without any restraint. Public schools are required to grant excused absences to students based on religious reasons, but these students are still responsible for making up any missed tests, quizzes, or class discussions they might have missed during their absence. When numerous students are likely to be absent on a religious holiday, schools often opt to cancel classes, deeming it impractical to proceed with regular educational activities (Haynes/Thomas, 2007).

Potential Solutions

One potential solution to this predicament is to grant all significant religious holidays off from school, which would resolve the issue at its core. However, this approach might lead to several challenges. Firstly, increasing the number of days off would inevitably prolong the school year, affecting both teachers and students who would be discontented with shortened summer vacations. Additionally, determining which holidays qualify as significant poses another dilemma. While holidays like Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid, and the Chinese Lunar New Year would likely be recognized, questions may arise concerning lesser-known holidays. For example, would schools grant time off for National Bagel Day on January 15th? As absurd as it may seem, such disputes could arise, leading to further complications.

Another potential solution involves having students declare their religion at the beginning of the school year, and subsequently granting them days off on their major religious holidays. However, this approach presents numerous issues. Firstly, it essentially segregates students based on their religious beliefs, a practice history has proven to be detrimental. Moreover, this system would hinder friendships between students of different faiths, as their breaks from school would occur at different times. For instance, a Catholic student and an Islamic student, who are best friends, would have little opportunity to interact due to their varying school breaks. Additionally, this solution might encourage some students to falsely declare their religion to align with the religion offering the most time off, thereby trivializing the importance of religious beliefs.

A third possible solution is to ensure fairness by granting no vacations for any religious holidays in public schools, including Christmas. Private schools, on the other hand, would be free to observe religious holidays according to their specific beliefs. However, this proposal is not without its challenges. Eliminating important breaks from the school year could deprive children of valuable time spent with family and friends, which is essential for their well-being. For instance, Christmas break not only provides a respite for Christian students but also offers a period of relaxation and relief from the stress of an arduous school year for students of all religions, as noted by Oscar Kimanuka (Kimanuka, 2016). Such breaks are necessary for students to recuperate from the pressures of academic life.


In conclusion, the neglect of numerous non-Christian holidays concerning school holidays denies students the opportunity to celebrate with their loved ones and friends, while also contributing to a lack of awareness regarding these important cultural events. Recognizing and acknowledging these holidays not only promotes fairness but also encourages religious tolerance. While America has made significant strides in religious tolerance throughout its history, accepting and acknowledging non-Christian holidays in public schools represents the next crucial step in fostering an inclusive and accepting society.

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