(Note: This is a revised version of an earlier post on this subject)

When Donald Trump was running for president, he complained that liberals were waging a war on Christmas. Nobody says “Merry Christmas” anymore because it wasn’t “politically correct,” he complained, and then declared: “We are going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Since then he has taken credit for making it a popular salutation again.

Actually, it never really went away — not even in public schools, where the holiday season annually brings questions and concerns about what is legally allowed when it comes to religious expression in public schools.

Can students pray in school and listen to religious music? Can teachers say “Merry Christmas” to their students? Can a Christmas tree ever be allowed? Can teachers and students talk about religion in class?

The answer to each of those questions? Yes.

Confusion began after the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1962 decision, banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools. Some parents, teachers and school officials read that as barring any type of religious expression in a public school — but that is not what federal courts have said. Schools can do plenty when it comes to religious expression:

  • While schools cannot initiate or sponsor religious activities — including prayer — nobody can stop students from praying to whatever or whomever they want, whenever they want as long, as they do it privately and don’t try to force others to follow.
  • Religious groups can meet at public schools.
  • Religious music can be played in public schools when the overall focus of the activity is not religious.
  • Anybody who wants to say “Merry Christmas” is legally permitted to do so.
  • Christmas trees can be brought into a school and decorated because a court has ruled the Christmas tree is a secular object, much like the Jewish menorah. Lighting the candles in a menorah, however, would have religious significance and therefore wouldn’t be allowed.
  • Religion can be taught as an academic subject, not as an effort to proselytize.

Charles C. Haynes, one of the best-known experts on religious liberty in American public life, has long said there has never been a “war on Christmas” and certainly not in public schools. He wrote:

The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians may rev up caucusgoers in Iowa, but there’s only one problem: It isn’t true.
Truth be told, students of all faiths are actually free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Of course, the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion does not necessarily include the right to preach to a captive audience, like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate.
Visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs, and in other ways bringing God with them through the schoolhouse door each day.
As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.
It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.

Haynes was the principal organizer and drafter of consensus guidelines on religious liberty in schools, which were endorsed by a broad range of religious and educational organizations. They state clearly:

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.

As for religious symbols in school, Teaching Tolerance, a project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, says they can come into a class as instructional aids but not as decoration or a permanent display.

Meanwhile, Trump has been claiming he won the “war on Christmas” for some time. In July 2018, for example, he said:

“Remember, I said, it’s awfully early to be thinking this, but I always think it. Remember the attack on Merry Christmas? They’re not attacking it anymore. Everyone’s happy to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ right? Merry Christmas! That was under siege. You’d have these big department stores that say ‘happy holidays.’ They say where’s the ‘Merry Christmas?’ Now they’re all putting up ‘Merry Christmas’ again. And that’s because only because of our campaign.”

Not really. But in any case, this year he decried what he called a “war on Thanksgiving” by people who don’t want to call the holiday “Thanksgiving” anymore. Once again, he promised to “save” it.