Lynchburg, VA - Liberty Counsel sent a letter offering a pro bono defense of Lynchburg City Schools if they are questioned for continuing time-honored cultural activities and other public school commemorations of traditional American holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
In the wake of a middle school staff member's disruption during a gospel choir concert, Lynchburg City Schools now have suffered criticism from Mayor Michael Gillette for allowing "Easter" egg hunts and "Easter" bonnet parades, because of the Christian religious aspects of the holiday.
Since the holiday has both religious and secular aspects, public schools may sponsor related activities without censoring the word "Easter" or foregoing the events.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "The United States Supreme Court has actually held that the Constitution requires accommodation and forbids hostility toward any religion. Suppression of the words "Easter" or "Christmas" is hostility toward Christianity and ignores the cultural aspects of these holidays in American life.
Any child whose religious beliefs prevented his participation could be easily accommodated, but the name "Easter" should not be censored, and children's activities should not be banned, as suggested by the mayor," said Staver.
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Here is the Letter:
Post Office Box 540774
Orlando, FL 32854
•1776 Facsimile: 407•875•0770
122 C Street
Washington, DC 20001
Post Office Box 11108
Lynchburg, VA 24506- 1108
Reply to: Virginia
April 14 , 2016
Via Email Only–firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Scott S. Brabrand,
Lynchburg City Schools
P.O. Box 2497
Lynchburg, VA 24505
RE: Public school celebrations of Easter and other holidays Dear Superintendent Brabrand:
As you may know, Liberty Counsel is a non-profit litigation, education, and policy organization with an emphasis on constitutional law, with offices in Lynchburg, Virginia; Orlando, Florida; and Washington D.C. Liberty Counsel provides pro bono legal representation to individuals, groups, and government entities, such as school districts, with a particular focus on religious liberty and other First Amendment issues.
I write regarding the recent Easter holiday activities sponsored by various schools within the Lynchburg City Schools (“the District” or “LCS”). With the analysis contained in this letter, Liberty Counsel hereby extends an offer of free, pro bono representation should the District be questioned for continuing time-honored cultural activities associated with Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other
holidays, which remain constitutional despite religious origins.
Federal holidays may be recognized in the schools without any violation of the Establishment Clause.
Much assecular symbols of Christmas such as Santa Claus and Candy Canes are permissible, there is
no religious significance to egg hunts at Easter, which are likewise permissible.
Simply put,the words “Easter” and “Christmas” need not be stricken from the public school holiday lexicon, and secular aspects of Easter and Christmas need notbe suppressed, as suggested by Mayor Gillette.
Unfortunately, detractors increasingly mischaracterize the meaning of theEstablishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and what it permits regarding public school commemorations of holidays having Christian religious origins.
For instance, Mayor Gillette has opined that the Easter holiday activities within the District (summarized in your attached email) are somehow improper, including within his objections
that not only have the schools provided Easter egg hunts for the children, but that some teachers have used the holiday as a learning opportunity by linking them to the Virginia Standards of Learning (“SOLs”):
Superintendent Brabrant April 14, 2016
While I am concerned about all of the Easter activities listed below, I believe that the fact that some teachers used the egg hunts as opportunities to reinforce SOL information demonstrates the depth to which the school system has failed to understand fully the implications of this behavior.
By linking an Easter activity to an SOL activity, the schools have added injury to insult
Mayor Gillette continues by posing a hypothetical which strains credulity, regarding the practice of Easter egg hunts
Students who are not Christian must now choose between engaging in an activity that is inconsistent with their own faith (or non-faith) or forgoing an academic opportunity altogether. The level of critical self-reflection necessary to manage issues such as these might or might not be generated by the listening tours, so I sincerely hope that the school administration understands the need for a multi-faceted and ongoing examination of these issues. (Emphasis added). The activities the mayor references are quoted from your summary email of Wednesday, March 30: No secondary schools held any egg hunts either this year or last year.
Paul Munro modified their traditional egg hunt to have a scavenger hunt for flowers and animals and used QR codes to gain clues. Every elementary school reported that in prior years it has been their tradition to hold egg hunts-most at the PK and K levels with a few having them at other grade levels.
Some noted that the egg hunts sought to have academic focus, with SOL content in the eggs.
We are using the listening tours to receive feedback on these and other school activities and what messages they send as we try to create an inclusive environment for students and their families.
Mayor Gillette’s concerns of injury (legal or otherwise) are unfounded.
Public schools may produce, host and engage in activities commemorating the secular aspects of “Easter” and “Christmas” without fear of violating anyone’s rights.
On the other hand, schools need not continue egg hunts only “because they had been communicated” and it would otherwise cause children and parents to be upset if they were cancelled.
Schools need not come up with nonsensical ways of avoiding traditional activities associated with the holiday (or avoid mentioning the holidays’ names), such as “scavenger” hunts to avoid“Easter” egg hunts, or Superintendent Brabrant April 14, 2016
a “spring bonnet parade”to avoid an “Easter Bonnet Parade, or “holiday tree” to avoid “Christmas tree.”
Academic content coinciding with the SOLs is nice, but is not required in order for Easter egg hunts
at a public school to be constitutional.
Easter egg hunts and bonnet parades are simply secular aspects of a religious and public holiday. One might note that there are no “Easter egg hunts” or “Easter bonnet parades” in the Bible or in Christian doctrine. They are merely cultural, and carry over from various pre-Christian spring traditions in Europe and elsewhere.
In America, these traditions are considered by the Supreme Court and other federal courts to be secular elements or observances of what is otherwise a religious holiday. See County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 633 (1989) (O'Connor, J., concurring) (Easter holiday includes “certain ' secular
aspects'such as Easter bunnies and Easter egg hunts.”); (“Christmas does not have to lose its religious significance for believers in order to be considered a secular holiday”). (Emphasis added). Because these aspects are secular, they are per se constitutional–and “inclusive.”
t is difficult to understand how secular aspects of a public holiday can “exclude” anyone–religious or non-religious alike.
There is no dispute that Easter is, in part, a Christian holiday; but this is immaterial. “[Thanksgiving]
has not lost its theme of expressing thanks for Divine aid any more than has Christmas lost its religious significance,” and recognition of these remains constitutional. Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 675 (1984). See also Metzl v. Leininger,57 F.3d 618, 620 (7th Cir. 1995) (“Easter egg hunts for children, not to mention photo sessions with the Easter Bunny” are “secularized rituals” of Easter);
Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon , 185 F.3d 796, 801-802 (7th Cir. 1999) (“While there may be few secular aspects surrounding Good Friday,there are many secular aspects to Easter-the Easter bunny, Easter baskets, jelly beans, dyed eggs, and Easter-egg hunts” (emphasis added); nevertheless, the state has “not established a religion by giving a holiday on Good Friday”). In addition, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Virginia, up held a state statute providing for public school holidays beginning on Good Friday, through Easter, despite Easter’s religious significance as “the holiest day in all of Christendom.” Koenick v. Felton , 190 F.3d 259, 266 (4th Cir. 1999).
Despite Mayor Gillette’s urging LCS to suppress secular Easter egg hunts because of their tangential association with the religious aspects of Christianity’s Easter holiday, and his claims of impropriety, the United States Supreme Court has actually held that the Constitution requires accommodation
, not merely tolerance, of all religions and forbids hostility toward any religion. Lynch v. Donnelly,
465 U.S. 668, 673 (1984). Suppression of “Easter” egg hunts merely because Easter is also a
Christian holiday is hostility toward Christianity.
In light of clear court precedent, any assertions that “Easter” egg hunts are “religious” in nature or coercive must fall. Likewise, teachers should be commended, not chastised, for taking what would merely be a secular Easter egg hunt activity, and relating it to Virginia SOL content.
Any assertion that creating a teachable moment out of a public holiday tradition “adds insult to injury” is baseless. There is no conflict between the SOLs and religious free exercise.
The District could go further still , tying students’ interest in the Easter holiday, with a study of
1 “Easter Bonnet Parade” was a 1933 Irving Berlin song that celebrated this time -honored American
Superintendent Brabrant April 14, 2016
applicable aspects of the SOLs about Jesus and Christianity,
2 comparing and contrasting the claims of Christ, with the teachings of Moses, and the claims of Muhammed, or Siddhartha Gautama (as this footnoted SOL in fact does on page 173 ). In sum, the Establishment Clause simply does not mean that every school activity must be sanitized of any remotely religious reference or nod , but rather, that government must not endorse a specific religion, or endorse religion over non - religion. In order to endorse religion, the activity in question must have been incorporated so as to serve a religious purpose, as opposed to a legitimate governmental interest, such as cultural education through commemorating secular aspects of federally-recognized American holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Liberty Counsel is pleased to stand alongside the Lynchburg Public Schools, in offering our pro bono legal defense of any lawsuit materializing out of Easter egg hunts or Easter bonnet parades under the facts you have described in your email . Liberty Counsel is prepared to defend the District at no charge, on this issue, or on other issues surrounding the observation or commemoration of Christmas or Thanksgiving, where the District follows our advice.
I therefore look forward to hearing of many Easter egg hunts and Easter bonnet parades next year
, along with other appropriate holiday celebrations. If you have any questions about the points set forth above, or clarification on Liberty Counsel’s offer of assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me at (407) 875
Richard L. Mast, Jr †3
Lynchburg School Board Members
MaryAnn Hoss, Chairman, District 1
Dr. Regina T. Dolan
Sewell, District 1
Derek Polley, District 1
haron Y. Carter, District 2
Jenny Poore, District 2
J. Marie Wall
Chairman, District 2
James E. Coleman, District 3
Dr. Michael J. Nilles, District 3
Katie K. Snyder, District 3
Lynchburg City Council
† Licensed in Virginia