October 31st is Halloween, or depending on your perspective, “just Thursday.” It will be a typical school day for my twins, who will participate in a school sponsored “storybook character parade” on the day after the holiday-that-shall-not-be-named (in lieu of the traditional procession of witches, goblins, and ghouls). While Halloween staples exist between the covers of countless children’s books, it seems like the whole point of the school’s decision to hold a low-key “character parade” is to move away from content that might offend some members of our community who view the tradition as an endorsement of paganism.
According to Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, a slim but interesting read on the changing meaning of this holiday over the centuries, the word “Halloween” is a derivative of the Christian All Hallow Even or Eve of All Saints’ Day; however, “it is often believed to have strong pagan roots that were likely never eliminated by subsequent Christianization.” It is connected to the Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”). The historical evidence of what Samhain rituals entailed is sparse and unreliable, but the festival “was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural.” In time, Halloween practices became a blend of pagan and Christian traditions.
Rogers explains that Halloween became established in North America in the Nineteenth Century via Irish and Scottish immigration. I found Rogers’ references to my home town of Philadelphia, which had a large Irish population, interesting: “In Philadelphia, in particular, where there was a rich tradition of masquerading in the streets on festive occasions, particularly at the New Year, Halloween must have been a colorful affair.” By now, Halloween has turned into a largely commercial holiday that many, if not most, of its observers enjoy without ascribing any religious meaning to it. It’s not without risks in a world where it may not be safe to knock on a neighbor’s door, but, for most of us, it remains a fun activity that encourages creativity and social interaction.
In this modern context, courts in the United States have generally held that Halloween-themed aspects of school activities and functions do not violate the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The establishment clause requires state neutrality regarding religion, while the free exercise clause recognizes the right to practice religion without government compulsion. Generally speaking, when it comes to Halloween in public schools, there probably isn’t a violation of the U.S. Constitution where no one can reasonably view the public school’s involvement as endorsing or inhibiting particular religious beliefs.
For example, in Fleischfresser v. Directors of Sch. Dist., 15 F.3d 680 (7th Cir. 1994), parents of elementary school children challenged the district’s inclusion of a supplemental reading program that featured “wizards, sorcerers, giants, and unspecified creatures with supernatural powers.” They alleged that the books in the series violated their First Amendment rights by “indoctrinat[ing] children in values directly opposed to their Christian beliefs by teaching tricks, despair, deceit, parental disrespect and by denigrating Christian symbols and holidays.”** The Court found that the series encouraged creativity and enhanced reading skills and was not an establishment of paganism or any other religion. Nor did it compel children or their parents to practice or refrain from practicing any particular religious belief.
Schools may have more discretion over curricula than over other aspects of the school environment, but it’s hard to see how a generalized Halloween parade that does not require students to wear particular religious-themed costumes could violate the First Amendment. Parents are free to keep their children home for that portion of the day or to permit their children to participate by wearing a costume that comports with their personal beliefs. For most of us, it’s just a big ol’ party, not a ritual.
I’m pleased that my children’s school has not cancelled the party entirely. They’ve just renamed it and changed the parameters in a way that encourages children to read (and I’m certainly not going to argue with that!). I can see why Halloween is a headache for schools: the deviation from the regular curricula, the candy at class parties (increasing the risk of food allergies), the socioeconomic implications of costumes (pricey ones vs. not having one at all), and for public school districts, the need to separate religion from government action. I suspect that my daughters’ school came to their decision not out of fear of a lawsuit from families like those in Fleischfresser–claims that would be unlikely to succeed–but from a desire to encourage reading and to engage more children in a school-sponsored activity through an inclusive theme (one that is less likely to offend). That makes sense to me, even if I miss the word “Halloween” and the cute images of goblins and ghouls on orange-colored flyers.
If more districts follow suit by either renaming/repurposing Halloween festivities or by banning it altogether, I wonder if the word “Halloween” will eventually disappear from the dictionary. How’s that for a scary thought?
Happy Halloween! Enjoy it while it lasts. 😉
*Image: My youngest daughter on Halloween in 2011. She was six months old.
**This is why people also challenge the inclusion of Harry Potter on library shelves.