Public School Field Trips, Religion, and the Law


What’s the big deal? Why can’t public school children go see that Charlie Brown Christmas play?



The law of separation of church and state, as it applies to public school field trips, as explained by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center’s Bill Burgess in a letter sent Monday:


November 26, 2012

Sandra Register
Terry Elementary School
10800 Mara Lynn Drive
Little Rock, Arkansas 72211
Dr. Morris Holmes
Little Rock School District
810 West Markham Street
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201
cc: Little Rock School District Board of Education
Re: Public Elementary School Field Trip to Church to See Christian Play  
Ladies and Gentlemen:

 I am writing to alert you to a serious separation of church and state concern.  We have recently received a request for legal assistance from the Arkansas Society of
Freethinkers and the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason on behalf of the parents of a student at Terry Elementary School.  They informed us that the school has scheduled a field trip for students to view a production of “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!,” a Christmas play with a sectarian theme, staged at and by Agape Church, a local evangelical Christian church,[1] the week of December 14.

The American Humanist Association is a national nonprofit organization with over 10,000 members and 20,000 supporters across the country, including in Arkansas.  The purpose of AHA’s legal center is to protect one of the most fundamental legal principles of our democracy: the constitutional mandate requiring separation of church and state, embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.[2]

As you must know, the Supreme Court has made clear that the “First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state” and that this “wall must be kept high and impregnable.”  Everson v. Bd. of Ed. of Ewing Twp., 330 U.S. 1, 18 (1947).  To do so, “the Constitution mandates that the government remain secular.”  County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 610 (1989).  In order to secure this freedom from state-backed religion, the Constitution requires that any governmental “practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause,” must have a “secular purpose” and not “advance . . . religion.”  Id. at 590.  Specifically, the government “may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization.”  Id.  Courts “pay particularly close attention to whether the challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of [unconstitutionally] ‘endorsing’ religion.”  Id. at 591.  Endorsement includes “conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.”  Id. at 593.

In short, “religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,” not the state.  Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 625 (1971).  In addition, the Supreme Court has in particular expressed especially “heightened concern” about preventing any sort of public school involvement with religion because of the risk of “subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools” environment.  Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 592 (1992).

Applying these general constitutional rules to the issue at hand, we have reason to believe that the school’s actions are in violation of the Establishment Clause.  The school is encouraging impressionable young students to attend an event in a Christian venue with a Christian message.  The effect is to affiliate the school with that message, encouraging its adoption by the students by means of this endorsement.

In the play, following a raucous and disjointed attempt to put on a Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown expresses frustration.  Linus says he can tell Charlie Brown “what Christmas is all about.”  He then quotes verbatim the New Testament of the Bible, Luke 2:8-14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The characters then cease bickering, adopt this religious view (rejecting the supposed “commercialism” of a secular Christmas celebration), and, in the immediately following final scenes, sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

The message of the play is clear: Jesus Christ is the son of God and the messiah, and the real meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the anniversary of his birth.  It is completely sectarian in nature and expressly rejects any secular version of Christmas.

A church is of course free to spread this religious message.  Our public schools, however, are not free to take part in the effort.  They may not choose to promote it by encouraging students to attend, let alone by organizing and funding attendance by means of an official field trip.  Although objecting students may decline to attend, they will face the subtly coercive pressure of their peers to do so (in addition of course to the explicit encouragement of the school).  Because of this, the Supreme Court has made clear that an Establishment Clause violation is not “mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request.”  Abington School Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 224-25 (1963). 

The Establishment Clause forbids our schools from promoting a religious message in this way.  This trip must therefore be canceled.  In the alternative, it may be modified to be instead a visit to a secular Christmas-themed theatrical performance, such as the Nutcracker, would of course present no issue.

Please notify us in writing about the steps you are taking to avoid this constitutional violation so that we may avoid any potential litigation.  Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.



William J. Burgess
Appignani Humanist Legal Center
American Humanist Association


[2]  The very first sentence of the Bill of Rights mandates that the state be secular: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  This provision, known as the Establishment Clause, “build[s] a wall of separation between church and State.”  See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878).  The Supreme Court “has given the [Establishment Clause] a ‘broad interpretation . . . in the light of its history and the evils it was designed forever to suppress. . . .’  [finding that it] afford[s] protection against religious establishment far more extensive than merely to forbid a national or state church.”  McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U. S. 420, 442 (1961).



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About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at

  • RuQu

    That answer is unacceptable.

    Can you please answer the question using only the Preamble of the Constitution and the last 8 sentences of the Declaration of Independence and using no words with more than two syllables?

    If not, you must concede that this is clearly an attempt by devil worshiping atheists to destroy Christmas.

    • iknklast

      How could that be acceptable? It doesn’t include John 3:16, nor the first two chapters of Genesis. And it doesn’t acknowledge that the Christians are being oppressed and forced to give up their traditions in their own homes, and kids not being allowed to pray in school. Better try again. ;-)

      • RuQu

        Are you ignorant or just a product of a failed educational system?

        This nation is a Christian nation. The Constitution itself is founded on the Bible and opens with quotes directly from Genesis where our Creator makes the world, and man, and the United States.

        • L. Poe

          I think the failed ones in education are you. The Preamble doesn’t at all reference Genesis. And even if it does, the Treaty of Tripoli expressly states by unanimous decision of the Senate that we are, in no way a Christian nation. There are very few instances of a unanimous vote by the Senate and this was one of them.

          Doing absolutely anything that carts children to see something which quotes Christianity infers an implicit consent to the religion by a state-funded entity. It is unConstitutional. This Christian Nation bs is just that: BS. I don’t know if you think if you say it enough times it becomes true or what, but it doesn’t. That’s why the Establishment Clause was put into the VERY FIRST amendment and it was SPELLED OUT to the world in the Treaty of Tripoli. Be glad this is a secular nation. I don’t know if you’ve poked your head out into the big scary world lately or not but every nation that is ruled by a faith is a shithole.

          • Nate Frein

            Mk…I’m guessing from your name that you’re just trolling.

            But word to the wise bro, if you fall under Poe’s law, it means you failed at humor.

        • Nate Frein

          YOU two nearly fooled me with your WORDS but your big words gave you away as the foul SATAN worshippers You are. You’re lack of Random CAPITALIZATION proves your evil intent and foul agenda. YOU Pursecut us my moking us!!!

          I PRAY for you that you wont now the feeling of SATANS FLAMES Of good grammar!

          • RuQu

            YoU’RE “words” are lies straight from the Pit of HELL.

            You REveAL yourself when you clearly and BLATANTLY use the proper form of “you’re.” You are clearly BRAINWASHED by the public “educashun” system of Amerika.

            I will pray for your soul.

          • Nate Frein

            Damnit. I missed one T.T

      • Anne

        Where’s the damn upvote button? I need to click it.

    • Anne

      You read the comment from the guy a couple of weeks ago who wanted to know, in the clear language of the first amendment, where I could find the phrase “separation of church and state, ” now didn’t you? Because you’ve done an awesome job of copying his style, just with better punctuation and grammar.

      • RuQu

        That’s exactly the questioner, and those who think like them, I was attempting to mock.

        I apologize for failing to fail better at the grammar. As the subsequent comments demonstrated, it’s actually a lot harder to intentionally screw that up in a believable way than you would think.

  • Aejay

    Well, this comment thread is already off to a good start.

    • Stogoe

      You’d think that wouldnt you, you heathen bully!

  • Brad1990

    Best… comment thread… ever.