Diversity, Religious Liberty, and December

religious liberty, diversity

Virginia Statu(t)e for Religious Freedom. Photo by K. G. Hawes, December 17, 2012. http://tinyurl.com/hawesphoto

by Mary Keeling

Educators  face perplexing issues of religious diversity all year, but especially in December.

  • English Language Learners refused water during a heat wave. They were fasting for Ramadan.
  • Second graders said Emma couldn’t borrow The Night before Christmas because she was Jewish.
  • A kindergarten teacher thought her “Christmas around the World” unit taught diversity.

This December, let’s explore the First Amendment, diversity, and library programming.

Thomas Jefferson considered his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his most important accomplishments. It declared that humans have the right to think for themselves and be free of government interference in matters of faith. In addition, it laid the groundwork for the First Amendment. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” Religious liberty extends to children, as does intellectual freedom. Therefore, public school educators must exercise care with holiday practices. As the face of institutional authority, we must prevent personal beliefs from intruding on the rights of others. The people of the United States are increasingly diverse:

  • In 2012-2013, over nine percent of U.S. public school students were English Language Learners.
  • In the last seven years, Americans of non-Christian faiths increased from 4.7% to 5.9% of the population.
  • More than one in ten immigrants identifies themselves as Muslim, Hindu, or other world religion.

What practices celebrate diversity? How can we nurture all children?

Know your children. Let children be children.

  • Know your students’ background and home cultures.  Learn what practices make students comfortable.
  • Be aware that some students feel overwhelmed by holiday trappings. How can your space be a safe haven for all children?
  • Do not ask a child to teach others about his family’s traditions. This may exaggerate any sense of being different from peers.

 Teach about holidays, but do not celebrate them.

  • Understand that celebrations, such as school-wide treat days or movie events, promote a specific point of view.
  • If you cannot be balanced and objective about all religious faiths, consider ignoring  Christmas. After all, the curriculum offers a multitude of ideas for wintere programming!

Be inclusive, balanced, and objective.

  • Include holidays of all religions practiced in your community in any study of holidays. An examination of celebrations around the world of just one faith isolates a nonbeliever.
  • Include stories and books of all world religions in holiday displays. Link to the International Children’s Digital Library.
  • Be aware that non-Christians perceive Christianity in everything Christmas — secular, commercial, or religious.
  • Avoid stereotyped, one-dimensional depictions of holiday symbols, such as those found in worksheets and clip art.

As librarians, we are already committed to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of thought. During this holiday season, let’s broaden our commitment to include respect for religious diversity. We can demonstrate that commitment by creating library spaces and programming to make children of all faiths feel at home.


Anti-Defamation League. (2012) Religion in the public schools: Teaching about religious holidays – “The December dilemma.” Accessed November 30, 2015.

First Amendment Center. (12/19/2004). “Merry fill-in-the-blank: fighting over the December dilemma.” Accessed November 30, 2015.

Jones, Lauren. (July 2, 2014). “Let Freedom Ring: U.Va. Professor Rediscovers Sacred Story Behind Jefferson Statue.” UVA Today. Accessed December 1, 2015.

Pew Research Center. (May 12, 2015). “America’s changing religious landscape.” accessed November 30, 2015.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144), English Language Learners. Accessed November 30, 2015.

Virginia Historical Society. “Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” Accessed November 30.



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