What should public schools do about Halloween?

Americans United has never taken a formal position on this question, but since I have two children attending public schools, I've given it some thought. It has been on my mind even more so lately since I've been working on a costume for my 11-year-old son that involves a lot of duct tape. He'll be wearing it in a school parade today and for trick-or-treating on Saturday.

Religious Right activists sometimes complain that Halloween is a religious holiday because it has origins in Paganism. Most scholars trace its origins to a Celtic festival called Samhain – although a few says it goes back to a Roman-era festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.

As Europe became Christianized, Samhain, like a lot of Pagan festivals, was reworked with a Christian gloss. The Christian church made Nov. 1 All Saints Day. The day before that religious holiday became "All Hallows Eve" – Halloween.

This history is interesting but not terribly relevant. Some people celebrate Halloween as a religious holiday, but the vast majority of Americans don't. Across the culture, Halloween has become an excuse to wear costumes, watch scary movies, go door to door asking for candy and attend parties.

These are secular activities. American culture has bestowed a non-religious meaning to Halloween, and public schools are free to acknowledge it. (For more on the evolution of Halloween, I recommend an excellent bookHalloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers.)

That doesn't mean schools have to hold Halloween parties, of course. Public schools can ignore Halloween, and some do that. Others are de-emphasizing the bloodier and scarier elements of the holiday by banning slasher costumes, violent outfits, etc. A school in Guam holds a "costume day" instead, where children dress as characters from literature.

So what does all of this mean?

Here's my bottom line: Celebrating Halloween in the public schools is not a violation of the separation of church and state. It is not celebrated as a religious holiday in America. At the same time, public schools need to use common sense. No child should be pressured or coerced to take part in Halloween activities if his or her parents object. Schools should have other activities available for these students.

Parents also need to understand that no school is required to acknowledge Halloween. Some schools are dropping parties because they'd rather the kids be doing something academic.

In some communities, parents have complained when schools stop hosting Halloween parties. I think that's a mistake. You can still have a great party at home.

If you're celebrating, have a Happy (and maybe just a little bit scary) Halloween.

P.S. Yesterday Americans United issued a press release about TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which posted on its Web site a bizarre column about Halloween candy being demonic. A number of blogs picked up the story, and now the column has mysteriously vanished from CBN's site. However, it is still available here.

UPDATE: Robertson's CBN has an entire page of Halloween-bashing nuttiness on its Web site. Take a look. But be warned! Some of it is verrrrry scarrrry!