Monday, November 11, 2013

Halloween Is An Establishment of Religion?

Last month, a Pennsylvania school district decided to cancel elementary school Halloween celebrations because of its religious nature.  The school principal, Orlando Taylor, signed a letter that stated: "Some holidays observed in the community that are considered by many to be secular (ex. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Valentine's Day) are viewed by others as having religious overtones. The district must always be mindful of the sensitivity of all the members of the community with regard to holidays and celebrations of a religious, cultural or secular nature. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that school districts may not endorse, prefer, favor, promote or advance any religious beliefs" (Scott 3).  “The district says the changes were made to maximize instruction time in the classroom, and that school-wide Halloween activities can take place before and after school hours” (7).  In exchange for canceling Halloween parties, the school district announced plans to hold a fall festival after school hours where students would be permitted to wear costumes.  Interestingly, the reaction from parents and students is mixed, with some parents complaining of no longer celebrating American tradition and culture and others stating that they would not send their children to school during the celebrations; however, the real debate in this case is whether Halloween celebrations in schools violate the Establishment Clause.  

In 1993, in Clever v. Cherry Hill Township, the use of religious symbols and the marking of certain religious holidays on calendars was challenged by Cherry Hill, New Jersey taxpayers.  School parents also objected to religious displays in classrooms.  This specific case involved Christmas.  While it never made it to the Supreme Court, the New Jersey District Court ruled:  "Religion is a pervasive and enduring human phenomenon which is an appropriate, if not desirable, subject of secular study.  It is hard to imagine how such study can be undertaken without exposing students to the religious doctrines and symbols of others.  Plaintiffs protest that the calendars and central displays are not part of ‘a planned program of instruction,’ but the use of appropriate classroom and central displays is clearly a recognized and legitimate educational technique."  The ruling in this case permits public schools to include religious holiday observances and education.  The application of this ruling, because Halloween and Christmas are both included on the calendar and are from two different traditions, proves that there is no preference for one religion over another.  The custom of the Halloween celebration originates as a pagan holiday that was later influenced by the Catholic Church:   "Halloween is also known as All Hallows’ Eve, and traditionally the day serves serves as the beginning of Hallowmas, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints and deceased religious believers. Hallowmas is derived from two words: the Old English word halig, meaning saint, and the word mass. Many scholars believe that Hallowmas was created by the Catholic Church when it took a pagan holiday, Samhain, and Christianized it in order to ease the pagans’ conversion to Christianity. Samhain itself is a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and it is celebrated by modern pagans and others from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st" (Bulger 2).  The question here is whether or not paganism is a religion.  I believe that it is; however, while Halloween has had Christian influence, the holiday itself is no longer religious.  It is a festival that initially celebrated the harvest and honored the dead.  In modern society, Halloween is commonly associated with costumes and candy, and most children are unaware that this celebration stems from a pagan holiday that was influenced by the Catholic Church.  Because Halloween has evolved into a secular tradition, I do not see celebrating this in schools as a violation of the Establishment Clause.  The purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the government from promoting one religion over another.  The celebration of many holidays (Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July for example) that originate from different religions, cultures, or historical events have been included on mass distribution calendars and recognized by the general population.  This fact demonstrates that the recognition of a faith tradition event is not equated to government sanctioning or promotion.  Therefore, because no one religion is being promoted over another, the celebration of Halloween in schools is not an Establishment of religion.  Do you agree?     

6 comments:

Dylan Smith said...

I was not aware that halloween originated from Catholicism. I think the same is probably true for most that celebrate halloween by trick-or-treating or something of the sort. The court has often considered how the endorsement of the something would appear to the general public. It seems clear that most people, especially in minority religious traditions, would not see this practice as favoring any specific religion. This does not facially establish a religion. So, the school board's precautionary denial, void of any complaint, is not justified in any way.

Maggie S. said...

I agree with Liz and Dylan that this is not establishment. In a country that recognizes Christmas Day--a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ--as a federal holiday, I find it difficult to accept an elementary school Halloween parade as an establishment. I understand that some people do not celebrate halloween and wouldn't want their kids to get dressed up, but there are surely students who would feel left out at a "holiday party" too surrounded by Santa Clauses or in doing an Easter Egg hunt.

Benjamin S said...

In no way is the celebration of Halloween "religious". The original intentions of honoring the dead have dissolved into a more secular celebration for the amusement of children.I also agree that if the country recognizes Christmas Day as a national day of celebration, then any harm that could be caused through Halloween is minimal. The holiday itself is not taught or celebrated as a catholic holiday, thus there is no way it is indoctrinating children in the classroom. No harm, no foul, no establishment.

Terry B said...

I have to agree with the majority that Halloween is not an establishment. The country has adopted this tradition and formed it into a secular event rather than a religious event. From my understanding Halloween consist of children, costumes, scary characters, and free candy. I see no religious event in which people are practicing a religion.

Cori T said...

Like Dylan and others, I was unaware that Halloween had a religious history/founding. Because in American culture, the ties between Halloween and religion are almost nonexistent, I do not see this as an Establishment issue whatsoever. Halloween today is more like a party/fun event than a religious observance or ritual.
I find more interesting the related case involving holidays on calendars, but even then I find that there is a compelling state interest to include religious holidays that many observe on calendars in schools.

Blair Kalichman said...

I agree with everyone, I have never seen Halloween as religious! However, I do have an Aunt that is a Jehovah's witness and while she doesn't celebrate Halloween, her children still dress up in costumes with their friends. Halloween has been a traditional American holiday for a long time and it does not endorse the Catholic beliefs that some claim the holiday derives from.