In elementary schools, it’s time to dial back Halloween

Oct 17, 2013

Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
Principal Orlando Taylor believed he was doing the right thing last week when he sent a letter home announcing to parents that Halloween celebrations will be banned this year at Inglewood Elementary School.
But Taylor underestimated how many parents in Towamencin Township, Pennsylvania are emotionally attached to the annual parties and parades featuring goblins, witches and ghosts. Outraged parents denounced the ban, calling it everything from ridiculous to un-American.
After the media got wind of the story, Taylor was transformed overnight from respectable school principal into the Grinch who stole Halloween.
Higher-ups in the school district scrambled to quell the controversy, announcing that Taylor had misstated the policy. It turns out that teachers are allowed to have Halloween parties, but school-wide Halloween events such as costume parades must be held before or after school.
Although the “Halloween banned” story turned out to be a bust, the media wouldn’t have to look hard to find many other districts that are moving away from Halloween-themed activities during the school day and either moving them to non-school hours or replacing them with “harvest festivals” without Halloween paraphernalia.
This trend to de-emphasize Halloween in elementary schools isn’t driven by fear of First Amendment lawsuits – or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
True, some images and symbols associated with “trick or treat” can be traced to ancient pagan and other religious practices. But Halloween in America has been so thoroughly secularized that no court in the land is likely to view school Halloween parties as an establishment of religion.
What’s actually pushing public schools to re-think Halloween is the recognition that growing numbers of Christian, Muslim and other religious parents are opting their kids out of Halloween celebrations at school. A judge may not see Halloween as “religious,” but many parents see activities involving images of witches, demons and ghosts as offensive to their faith.
Non-religious objections to Halloween are also gaining traction in some school districts. Many educators want to reclaim time lost to Halloween activities during the school day. Others worry that school parades and parties leave out poor families who can’t afford the increasingly elaborate costumes.
None of these objections matter much to Halloween enthusiasts, as the brouhaha in Pennsylvania illustrates. Their basic message seems to be “don’t spoil the fun for my kid.”
But when Halloween-themed lessons and activities are ubiquitous in classrooms for weeks at a time – which is the case in many elementary schools – it isn’t much fun for parents who are trying to avoid Halloween. Kids assigned to color the witches green, sing spooky songs and read about haunted houses can’t opt out without opting out of school for much of October.
Eliminating Halloween altogether, as Principal Taylor discovered, is too unpopular, unrealistic and counter-cultural to make sense for most school districts. But toning it down – as Taylor’s district is apparently trying to do – is a good idea. Pushing costume parades to after school hours, for example, makes them voluntary for families who want to participate.
If Halloween lessons and activities disappeared tomorrow from the October curriculum, little of educational value would be lost. On the contrary, less Halloween could mean more time to teach something that really matters.
Even better, dialing back Halloween during the school day would send a message of respect for the beliefs and values of many religious parents.
Yes, Halloween as currently celebrated in elementary school classrooms is constitutional. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: