Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined the opportunity to provide clarity on the issue of which holiday symbols can be constitutionally displayed in public schools. The case in question involved the New York City school system’s policy on holiday displays, which permitted the display of Christmas trees, Santa Claus decorations, Jewish menorahs, and Islamic star and crescent symbols, but not Christian nativity scenes or crèches. The high court had carefully considered the appeal in Skoros v. City of New York, discussing it at seven private conferences since November, before ultimately deciding to decline review.
"We were disappointed and surprised by the outright denial," expressed Brian Rooney, a lawyer from the Thomas More Law Center, a legal advocacy group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The organization had represented Andrea Skoros, a Roman Catholic mother in New York who challenged the school system’s policy. Skoros’ lawsuit argued that the school’s refusal to allow nativity scenes while permitting other religious symbols conveyed a disapproval of Christianity and violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government establishing religion. Both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the school district’s policy, deeming it to have a valid secular purpose.
The 2nd Circuit court stated that New York City schools have a vital role in teaching diversity and tolerance since many of the students or their parents are immigrants from countries where these values may not be highly regarded. The court emphasized that cheerful multicultural holiday displays, rather than formal assignments, contribute to this important lesson and have a genuine secular purpose.
However, the opinion acknowledged that the New York system erred in characterizing the Jewish menorah and Islamic star and crescent as secular symbols, but it allowed them to be incorporated into a predominantly secular holiday display. The court stated that the school district’s confusion regarding the Supreme Court’s complex rulings on holiday displays, which have previously upheld nativity scenes as long as they are accompanied by secular symbols, is understandable.
One judge on the 2nd Circuit panel dissented, arguing that the displays permitted under the policy would imply that the district endorsed Judaism and Islam and conveyed a message to parents that Christianity was disfavored. Leonard J. Koerner, a lawyer in New York’s corporation counsel’s office, confirmed that the district’s policy has not changed following the challenge.