When I was growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s, my public elementary school made participation in the annual Christmas play mandatory – much to the consternation of my mother, whose pleas to the principal to excuse me, one of a small group of Jewish kids, fell on deaf ears. A 1963 Supreme Court decision finding unconstitutional a Pennsylvania state law requiring students to participate in classroom exercises involving daily Bible verse reading apparently didn’t extend to Christmas pageants, at least not in my school.
As the years went by, that School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp ruling, along with similar Supreme Court decisions based on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, had their effect. Daily Bible readings, prayers and Christmas pageants in public school became a relic of the past in our increasingly multicultural, multi-religion society. This was not merely an evolution of social mores and values. It was recognition that not only do school-sponsored religious activities convey an unconstitutional message of government endorsement of religion but that schools have an outsized influence on the views of children. The Establishment Clause, a hallmark of our American democracy, protects the rights of minority religions – or those opposed to any religion – from the insidious effects of government-approved religion, not to mention oppression by a religious majority. In our current political environment, however, those protections are under attack.