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Legal Concerns Regarding Holidays at School

TASB Legal Services addresses common questions regarding how to handle a host of issues related to religious holidays at school districts.

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Following are answers to the most frequently asked legal questions about how to handle religious holidays at school districts:

Q: Can a School District Award Holiday Bonuses to Employees?

A: For contract employees, a holiday bonus is not permissible unless planned in advance or in exchange for more work. The Texas Constitution prohibits the grant of “extra compensation” after a contract has been entered into and performed in whole or in part. (Tex. Const. art. III, § 53.)

If the school board adopts a specific bonus plan in advance, a district may award a bonus to both contract and at-will employees. Any increase in pay for at-will employees should be established before the pay period in which the work begins. For contract employees, authorization for a bonus payment should be established in advance, either in the employee’s contract or the compensation plan. (Tex. Att’y Gen.LO-94-067 (1994)).

Q: Can a School District Give Appreciation Gifts to Employees?

A: Maybe. The Texas Constitution prohibits gifts of public funds. (Tex. Const. art. III, § 51). A district must not only ensure that an expenditure accomplishes a public purpose but must also retain control over the funds and ensure that the district receives a return benefit. (Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. GA-0204 (2004)).

Plaques, flowers, frozen turkeys, and similar gifts may be allowable expenditures if the board first determines that these items serve a legitimate public purpose, such as increasing employee morale. It is important to remember that there is “no de minimis exception in the constitutional language.” (Tex. Att’y Gen. LO-96-136 (1996)). In other words, even the smallest expenditure could be considered a gift of public funds.

Gift cards are not appropriate employee gifts from the district. Because gift cards are readily convertible to cash, they must be reported as taxable income if received from an employer. Other gifts, even if permissible otherwise, may also be reportable taxable income if not covered by a de minimis fringe benefit exception. (Internal Revenue Serv., De Minimis Fringe Benefits (July 6, 2022)).

Q: Can Parents Give Employees Appreciation Gifts?

A: Yes! Gifts from parents or students are not covered by the rules related to gifts of public funds or taxes. As long as the gift is not a bribe, employees may accept gifts from parents and students — even valuable ones. (See Tex. Penal Code § 36.02). Be aware, however, that UIL coaches and sponsors can be suspended if they accept gifts valued at more than $500 per year. (Univ. Interscholastic League, 2022-2023 UIL Constitution & Contest Rules § 481).

Q: Can Schools Permit Holiday Celebrations Like Classroom Parties?

A: Yes, as long as they serve an appropriate instructional purpose. Ideally, a teacher’s lesson plan will clearly connect the holiday event to instructional goals. Be sure to share guidelines for holiday celebrations with parents in advance. Being transparent about the issues raised by religion in public schools is the first step to setting a tone of mutual support and respect.

Remember, parents have the right to remove their child temporarily from an activity that conflicts with their religious or moral belief. (Tex. Educ. Code § 26.010). However, parents whose children must annually choose between school activities and their family’s beliefs are not likely to feel that they are being treated as partners in education.

Q: Can Students Exchange Holiday Greetings or Gifts With Religious Messages?

A: Yes. State law allows students and staff to exchange traditional greetings such as “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” and “happy holidays.” (Tex. Educ. Code § 29.920(a)). Arguably, such greetings were allowed prior to the passage of the law, as long as employees offering such greetings did not coerce a student’s participation in a specific religious holiday. Around the holidays, neutrality is key. To the extent students are allowed to exchange secular items like cards or gifts, they may exchange such items with religious themes as well. See TASB Policies FNAA(LEGAL) and (LOCAL) for more information on distribution of non-school materials.

Q: Can Campuses Display Holiday Decorations?

A: State law permits display of symbols associated with winter celebrations if the display includes a scene or symbol of more than one religion or one religion and a secular symbol. (Tex. Educ. Code § 29.920(b)). This must be interpreted in accordance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits schools from advancing, coercing, or endorsing a particular religion or religion over nonreligion. As such, schools should not display information or images that promote or inhibit religion.

Q: Can Students Perform Religious Music as Part of a Seasonal Performance?

A: Yes, as long as the music is selected on the basis of its cultural or artistic value and not for a devotional purpose. Federal courts have upheld performances that combine religious and secular elements of holiday celebrations, as long as the performances are not performed as a religious exercise and do not coerce students. (See e.g. Doe ex rel. Doe v. Duncanville Indep. Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1995) (religious music in choir class did not violate Establishment Clause when not performed as religious exercise)).

If you have more questions about the holidays at school, call TASB Legal Services at 800-580-5345. You can also find more information on TASB’s School Law eSource page on Religion in Public Schools.

This article is provided for educational purposes and contains information to facilitate a general understanding of the law. References to judicial or other official proceedings are intended to be a fair and impartial account of public records, which may contain allegations that are not true. This publication is not an exhaustive treatment of the law, nor is it intended to substitute for the advice of an attorney. Consult your own attorney to apply these legal principles to specific fact situations.

TASB Legal Services provides sound legal advice, timely resources, and high-quality training to Texas public school officials, administrators, and school district attorneys.