I wouldn’t normally stick my nose into a discussion of religion but we do have a participation requirement and this topic is interesting to me. Please understand I mean no offence and that I am commenting purely out of academic motives (pardon the pun).
I certainly agree that religious instruction has no place in public education. On a very basic level, the separation of church and state in the constitution means that there is no ‘public’ religion to be instructed and therefore any religious instruction is an intrusion.
Having said that, my personal belief is that respecting differences (which I agree with very much) is more about allowing each to have their own. In a public environment, it seems unfortunate to me to allow what is permissible to be defined by what no religion prohibits. This is an odd definition of tolerance, tolerating being imposed upon by another’s beliefs. As a parent, I would prefer if schools simply let families opt out of events and occasions they find religiously (or otherwise, for that matter) problematic. On the other hand, I am eager to have my daughter learn the traditions of other cultures and religions in school. This makes her more worldly and more tolerant. After her Presbyterian pre-school burned down in the 2008 fires, they were housed in the local Jewish center for a year. There they could only have kosher lunches and they joined in the Shabbat celebrations on Fridays. It was great!
One of the side effects of this aspect of the first amendment is that the government is mostly not even allowed to make judgements about what is a religion. This being the case, the circle of who can outlaw what in a classroom becomes very wide indeed. Pretty much anybody who wants to call themselves a religion has the right to an equal legal voice. Typically, religious celebrations are about the nature of life, its joy and its sadness. To move through the weeks as a school community without them (with all of them) would be very dull and oppressive. It also becomes a null curriculum of a kind – teaching the students that some things can’t or shouldn’t be discussed.
Anyway, I trust I haven’t given offense. And as a teacher I would step MUCH more carefully, including considering the option of avoiding certain concepts, events or activities if necessary.