MI Schools’ Racial Christmas Directives Are Unconstitutional

Nov 27, 2023

Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter to Superintendent David Hornak of Holt Public Schools in Michigan regarding the unconstitutional bans on Christmas holiday symbols, decorations, and expression contained in a so-called “Racial Guide” sent to teachers in 2021, 2022, and any that will be published this year. As a result of multiple complaints from teachers, Liberty Counsel has demanded the school district retract the “Decentering Christmas”/“Holiday Celebrations”/“Racial Justice Guide” email published December 3, 2021, “Winter Celebrations Communications FAQ” published December 2, 2022, and any similar  unconstitutional bans and directives promulgated in 2023. 

Instead of being “inclusive,” these directives are rooted in Critical Race Theory and promote a hatred for and discriminate against Christianity and associated holidays, such as Christmas. They violate school policy, the First Amendment, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by showing hostility on the basis of religion and on the basis of race.

On December 3, 2021, the school district’s then-Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Matt Morales sent an email entitled “Holiday Celebrations” to teachers which included: 

“Many students, teachers, and staff may express excitement during the upcoming weeks as we look forward to having an extended break and possibly engaging in holiday activities. While this may be an exciting time for many people, others may lack a sense of belonging. As we continue our commitment toward creating a more inclusive learning community with intentional equity work, I want to provide additional opportunities for reflection and growth. Therefore, I ask that you review the meaning of Decentering Christmas and the reflection questions provided below. While reviewing this material, please understand that a diverse display of non-religious celebrations demonstrates support for the winter season and the importance of community.  

Decentering Christmas does not mean canceling Christmas - by Liz Kleinrock 

Here’s what it does mean: 

This practice is not to encourage teachers and schools to ignore holidays. Ignoring holidays completely is similar to a ‘race/color-evasive’ approach. Often, holidays and cultural and religious practices are important aspects of peoples’ identities.  

Instead, how can we dismantle the hierarchy of religious practices and holidays?” 

The email directive also included “Reflection Questions” and “Recommended Resources” such as:

“What do you know about your students and families’ religious and cultural identities?

Are you aware of which holidays your students celebrate?

Which holidays are visible in your classroom decor and activities?

How might you be centering your own traditions and beliefs?

How do you celebrate holidays outside of December in your classroom and school?

What are you taking for granted as ‘non-religious’ (Elf on the Shelf, Santa, decorated trees) that are actually centered on Christian beliefs and practices?

How can you discuss ‘dominant culture holidays’ with students who celebrate dominant culture holidays, and create actionable steps to be inclusive and respectful of holidays? 

Recommended Resources:

A Racial Justice Guide to the Winter Holiday Season for Educators and Families - Center for Racial Justice in Education (Includes an extensive list of resources.)

Culturally Responsive Instruction for Holiday and Religious Celebrations by Dr. Cynthia Lundgren & Giselle Lundy-Ponce” 

The email’s “Recommended Resources” are “recommended” for all staff for “reflection and growth” and included anti-Christmas “Resources for Educators on the Winter Holidays;” anti-Christian “Christian Privilege, Hegemony, and the Winter Holiday Season;” “Islam, Islamophobia, and the Winter Holiday Season;” “Judaism, Antisemitism, and the Winter Holiday Season;” “Celebrating Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) and the Winter Holiday Season;” and the following “racist essays” on “Whiteness and the Holidays” which include: 

•           “Dear White People, the Holiday Season Is the Best Time To Tell Our Grandparents To Stop Being Racist – Jordan Uhl

•           Do The Holidays Need To Be A Celebration of Whiteness? –  Multiracial Media

•           Black Santa—Where You At? – Verysmartbrothas.com

•           Why Is Santa Claus Always White? – Peggy Albers

•           Seeing Santa in Black and White – Sa’iyda Shabazz

•           Black, White or Imaginary? Santa’s Race Has the US in a Christmas Kerfuffle – Hadley Freeman

•           Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa at Mall Of America – Ed Mazza

•           Dreaming of a Not-White Christmas: Why I’m Embracing Black Santa and Black Jesus – Angela Fichter” 

The email posits “opportunities for reflection and growth” claiming on the one hand that “Decentering Christmas” does not mean “canceling” Christmas but instead eliminating any positive aspects of Christmas (and any reference to “Christmas”) under the guise of “dismantling the hierarchy of religious practices and holidays.” The email also claims “non-religious” aspects of the holiday such as Elf on the Shelf, Santa, and decorated trees “are actually centered on Christian beliefs and practices” and even these secular aspects must also be eliminated. The email promotes racism and discrimination based on ethnicity, ancestry, color, and Marxism and communicates that Christianity, Christmas, and “whiteness” are problems to be remedied. Decorations deemed “religious” by the school district including Christmas trees and the colors red and green must be eliminated in favor of “a tree that is winter themed or has plain light bulbs.” 

On December 2, 2022, the school district published the “2022 HPS Winter Celebrations Communication FAQ” to prohibit the celebration of the Christmas holiday through symbols, decorations, and expression. For example, the directive stated that “secular decor is acceptable.” For example, using a tree that is winter themed or has plain light bulbs versus angels, Santa, or a manger scene, etc.” This also applies to decorations throughout the school building. 

Regarding classroom activities, school officials stated to teachers that in the classroom, “showing a movie, as part of your thoughtful learning activities covering a broad spectrum of cultural backgrounds, that does not center one culture over another is acceptable.” In other words, showing a secular Christmas movie such as “Home Alone” is not “okay.” 

Since the district does not allow staff to dress up for holidays but they can dress up for spirit week or other events, the directive stated that “spirit days are student driven and center our internal school community, while holidays are deeply rooted in personal/cultural identities. As a district, we will continue to be thoughtful around cultural holidays as our learning community consists of a broad spectrum of cultures.” 

In addition, the district stated, “Building consistency as a district around holidays/celebrations is an area of focus. While we understand that there may be situations where all or most students celebrate a certain holiday, a more inclusive winter or holiday board would better serve all students.” 

These anti-Christian, anti-Christmas, and race-based directives are not only inconsistent with school board policies, they are also unlawful especially considering three recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Shurtleff v. City of Boston, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and Groff v. DeJoy. 

These three cases ruled that it is unlawful to censor religious expression, buried the “Lemon Test” formerly used to remove religious symbols and displays from the public square, and strengthened Title VII protections for employees regarding religious discrimination. 

For instance, in Liberty Counsel’s 9-0 victory in Shurtleff, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the City of Boston violated the First Amendment by censoring a private flag in a public forum open to “all applicants” merely because the application referred to it as a “Christian flag.” According to the Court’s reasoning in Shurtleff, a city then cannot encourage employees to decorate spaces for holidays at employee discretion and then censor religious viewpoints on the holiday. Liberty Counsel further states that due to the Kennedy case, a city cannot treat “everything a government employee expresses in the workplace as government speech subject to government control” and therefore, cannot transform their speech into government speech. In both Shurtleff and Kennedy, the Court rejected attempts to censor religious speech and eliminated the “Lemon Test.” And under Groff, an employer who discriminates against employees on account of religion has a much higher burden to argue that the employee cannot be accommodated. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “These absurd directives violate the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by showing hostility on the basis of religion and race. The First Amendment does not permit public schools to eliminate traditional Christmas holiday symbols or expression associated with a federal and state holiday under the guise of being ‘inclusive.’ The First Amendment also does not permit school administrators to promote racism to staff and students; nor does the First Amendment or Title VII permit the public schools to demean people on the basis of race. Holt Public Schools must retract and rescind their unconstitutional directives and comply with the law.” 

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