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Halloween and the Establishment Clause


What comes to mind when you think of Halloween? Ghosts? Goblins? First Amendment jurisprudence?

If that last one sounds like a non sequitur, then you’ve probably never heard of Guyer v. School Board of Alachua County.* The case originated in Alachua County, Florida, where public elementary schools had put up decorations depicting witches, cauldrons, and brooms, and teachers had dressed up in costumes—some of them as witches in black dresses and pointy hats—in celebration of Halloween. A parent named Robert Guyer sued to enjoin the schools from using these decorations and costumes in future celebrations. In his supporting affidavit, Guyer argued that witches, cauldrons, and brooms were significant to followers of the Wiccan religion, and that the schools’ use of these symbols therefore violated the establishment clauses of the Florida and U.S. constitutions.† The Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of the school board, and Guyer appealed to the First District Court of Appeal of Florida.

In its written opinion, the Court of Appeal relied on the three-part test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). According to this test, in deciding whether the government has violated the establishment clause, the court must determine “whether the challenged law or conduct has a secular purpose, whether its principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion.” The court found that there was no excessive entanglement, and that the celebrations had a clear secular purpose: they were fun for the students and fostered a sense of community. Thus the case boiled down to whether the celebration’s principle or primary effect was to advance religion. The court found that although the witches, cauldrons, and brooms may have had religious significance to some people, this was clearly not their primary significance in the context of a secular Halloween celebration. The decision of the lower court was affirmed.   

* Guyer v. Sch. Bd. of Alachua County, 634 So.2d 806 (Dist. Ct. of App. Fla., 1994).
† The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Florida Constitution contains nearly identical language. 

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