George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

The First Amendment, a Captive Audience, and “The Grinch Memo”

December 2, 2014

Over some years as a Curriculum Coordinator/Associate Superintendent in more than one Vermont school district, I was dismayed to discover the degree to which Christmas was routinely observed and celebrated in our schools and classrooms.  Christmas was everywhere: Christmas decorations in school lobbies, halls and classrooms; secret Santa gift giving; un-secret Santas in costume; school-sponsored Christmas bazaars; Christmas concerts featuring Christmas carols; Christmas plays; Christmas classroom parties during the school day, featuring Christmas cookies and other Christmas treats.  In the midst of all of this, I kept picturing a non-Christian child or adult - Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Atheist, or Agnostic - facing the deluge of Christmas in school for weeks, fearful about disclosing her/his “otherness”.

The First Amendment of the Constitution carries important obligations. Public schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor coerce participation in religious activity.  The right of religious expression in school DOES NOT include the right to have a “captive audience” listen, or the right to compel other students to participate, actively or passively.

Eventually I raised this issue with a listening superintendent.  She and I worked with the supervisory union attorney to craft what came to be known (ultimately fondly) as “The Grinch Memo”.  I’ve written countless memos in my career as an educator.  This is one still makes me proud.  We intentionally sent it early in the school year, giving everyone time to make plans for the winter months.  We knew it would cause a stir, and it did.  But for many years afterwards, principals would often ask me for a copy of it…because it made sense to them, too.

The purpose of public schools is to engage students and prepare them to live as productive citizens in a democracy.  We serve this purpose poorly by ignoring the religious, ethnic, and economic diversity of our society; by assuming that our own community is homogenous. 

Please feel free to use or adapt The Grinch Memo to raise awareness in your school district.  


To:       Teachers and Administrators

From:    Superintendent and Curriculum Coordinator

Re:       Guidelines on Religious Observances and Symbolism in Schools

The topic of religious expression in public schools encompasses a wide array of issues and raises a multitude of questions under the First Amendment.  The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”  The First Amendment applies to state governments and therefore to public schools as agents of the state.

Two Basic and Equally Important Obligations of the First Amendment:

1) Schools may not discriminate against religious expression by students.  Schools must give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity.

2) Schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor coerce participation in religious activity.  The right of religious expression in school DOES NOT include the right to have a “captive audience” listen, or the right to compel other students to participate, actively or passively. 

Guidelines for Schools in Keeping with the First Amendment:

a.  No religious belief or non-belief should be promoted by the school district or its employees and none should be disparaged.

b.  The district should use all opportunities to foster understanding and mutual respect among students and parents, whether it involves race, culture, economic background, or religious beliefs.

c. The district recognizes that one of its educational goals is to advance students’ knowledge of, and appreciation for, the role that religious heritage has played in the social, cultural, and historical development of civilization.  Information about historical and contemporary values and the origin of religious holidays may be appropriately provided in an unbiased and objective manner without sectarian indoctrination and as described by the curriculum.

d. Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or religious basis are permitted, as part of the curriculum, in portraying the cultural and religious heritage of a particular holiday.  The emphasis on religious themes will be only as extensive as necessary for a balanced and comprehensive study or presentation.  Religious content included in student performances will be selected on the basis of independent educational merit and aesthetic value, and will seek exposure to a variety of religious customs, beliefs, and forms of expression. 

e.  Schools will not observe holidays as religious events, or promote such observance by students.  Concerts will avoid programs dominated by religious music, especially when these coincide with a particular religious holiday.  Celebrations and observances sponsored by the school will be limited to secular aspects of any particular holiday. 

f. The use of religious symbols such as a cross, menorah, crescent, Star of David, crèche, symbols of Native American religions, or other symbols is acceptable when displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday and are temporary in nature.  They may not be used as decorations.  Please note: Symbols of religious holidays which have acquired secular meaning, such as Christmas trees, may be permissible decorations, although the courts have not ruled on this specific issue.

g. In the spirit of tolerance, students and staff members should be excused from participating in practices that are contrary to their religious beliefs unless there are clear issues of overriding concern that would prevent it.

In making decisions about music selections, artistic displays, etc., teachers and administrators should use the following “litmus test”.

Answer the question:

“Why do we want to display this item or perform this particular music?”

  • If the answer is “To celebrate Christmas”(or any other religious holiday),then the school will not be able to allow this display or performance.
  • If the answer is “To teach about Christmas (or any other religious holiday) as part of a planned and balanced approach to teaching about the role of religious heritage in its social, cultural, and historic context around the world”, then the school will be able to allow this display or performance.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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