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Ban on School Christmas Carols Upheld

By Jeanette Rundquist
c. 2010 Religion News Service
(RNS) “Silent Night” and other religious songs will remain off the program at holiday concerts in one New Jersey school district — and possibly others across the country — after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a school ban on religious holiday music.
By deciding Monday (Oct. 4) not to hear the case, the high court ended a six-year legal battle that started when parent Michael Stratechuk sued the School District of South Orange and Maplewood over a policy that barred religious songs at public concerts.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban last year, and Stratechuk attempted to take the case to the higher court.
“There’s nothing more, short of the school district changing its policy. There’s no other legal avenue to take,” Stratechuk’s attorney, Robert J. Muise of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said.
While the 3rd Circuit ruling technically only applies to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Muise worries the high court’s rejection of the case could lead to a chilling effect on religious music in school districts across the country.
“Religion has not been banned totally in schools but we’re headed in that direction,” he said Tuesday. “The South Orange-Maplewood Schools are in the forefront of taking that step.”
Stratechuk, a musician whose two sons were in seventh and ninth grades when he brought the case, could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, school Superintendent Brian Osborne said the policy “was adopted to promote an inclusive environment for all students in our school community. We have always felt our policy was constitutional and are pleased with the outcome.”
In the 1990s, South Orange-Maplewood adopted a policy banning the use of religious songs in school performances. The district stirred controversy in 2004 when a memo clarified the policy, extending it to vocal and instrumental performances.
Opponents organized an “illegal” night of Christmas carols, Hanukkah songs and other musical pieces that December, according to Muise’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The policy covered religious songs of all faiths, but Muise said his client’s case was brought on behalf of Christmas songs.
“You’re not even going to allow the instrumentals of the music that doesn’t contain the words,” Muise said. “People in the audience would sing the songs in their minds?”
The case was brought under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which requires the government to be neutral toward religion, Muise said.
“The whole idea of diversity and tolerance, you learn those traits by understanding other people’s traditions and religious traditions,” he said.
The South Orange-Maplewood policy, which says its goal is to “foster mutual understanding and respect for the right of all individuals regarding their beliefs,” permits religious music to be taught in the curriculum. But the music cannot be used to celebrate religious concepts, events or holidays.
Muise said by banning it from performance, the district essentially kept religious songs out of the curriculum because “teachers tend to have students learn in class what they’re going to perform” at a concert.
He also said that despite the district’s stated policy, prior to
2004 some holiday concerts did contain Christmas music. In 2003, for example, according to the petition, one holiday concert included “Joy to the World,” “O Come all Ye Faithful,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.”
He said the policy also prohibits “any printed programs for any holiday concert to have any graphics which refer to the holidays, such as Christmas trees and dreidels.”
(Jeanette Rundquist writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.
Whitney Jones contributed to this report.)
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Rob the Rev

    People have the right to sing their carols and hymns or Hanukkah songs in their churches and synagogues, in their homes, on the public street, and children can sing them on the playground during recess if they want; but public schools paid for with tax dollars have no place in putting carols and hymns into public programs that people of all religious beliefs, or none, may be attending and thereby favoring one religion over another. Keep the programs secular.

  • Kiro

    This is appropriate: religion should stay out of schools. Schools should be a neutral zone.
    Now if we could just apply the same standard to secular humanists, who are quick to say that the schools should be neutral when it comes to banning Christianity – but who are all in favor of forcing their beliefs on others when it’s their own beliefs.

  • jestrfyl

    There is enough material about Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus (long devoid of any enduring religious significance) to fill any concert program. Add to that all of the Currier & Ives type music and there is plenty to do, without adding in explicitly religious pieces as well.
    Perhaps it is time for Christians to request that their sacred music be left alone rather than being bawlderized by secular groups of children. Let’s start to make Christmas special again instead of allowing it to dissolve into cultural pablum.
    This might create an opportunity for enterprising young poets to take the magestic harmonies and haunting melodies and apply new lyrics of a secular but still seasonally aprropriate type. It is the end of the calendar year, the winter solstice, and a time for reflection and meditation. Use that in the schools and keep the religious imagry and symbolism in the churches.

  • Rob the Rev

    @ Kiro: “Now if we could just apply the same standard to secular humanists, who are quick to say that the schools should be neutral when it comes to banning Christianity – but who are all in favor of forcing their beliefs on others when it’s their own beliefs.”
    Christianity and all religions with their respective histories CAN be taught in public schools in an ACADEMIC manner but they cannot be set forth as dogma or done in such a way that they are proselyting the students or as if any one religion is superior to the others. The same is true of secular humanism.

  • revmary

    The problem with this, in the grand scheme of things, is that the prohibition against religiously-themed music in schools will undermine education in music history’s repertory. No Bach cantatas? No Bible-story themed oratorio? No sing-along Messiah? Isn’t “informed consent” an option here? Becoming familiar with music is one thing, “forcing belief” is quite another. As a music major in vocal performance, I sang many pieces I didn’t believe in, but I am grateful to have been exposed to the music as part of an overall educational experience.

  • Rob the Rev

    @ Revmary: “The problem with this, in the grand scheme of things, is that the prohibition against religiously-themed music in schools will undermine education in music history’s repertory.”
    The courts have established that sacred music can be taught and be sung by choirs in public schools from an academic and historic perspective. It cannot be used for the purpose of exalting one religion over another, proselyting or for the purpose of worship.

  • Mordred08

    I say give them what they want this one time. If only so we might not have to listen to the “War on Christmas” crap again this year. Or better yet, let them play all the religious themed music they want as long as they don’t play that song about the shoes. You know the one.
    “Mister, help me buy these shoes for Christmas so my dying mother has something nice to wear to heaven.”
    “Certainly, son. Clearly God has arranged these events so I (and by extension, the listener) could learn a lesson about giving that Charles Dickens did so much better.”
    Seriously, does anyone like that song?

  • cmaglaughlin

    Would someone please explain this oxymoron…You can’t sing or play Christmas music during Christmas. I suppose some idiot will squeal, “separation of church and state.” Well, idiot, there is no such doctrine in our Constitution. The inventor of the phrase, Thomas Jefferson, did write the Anabaptists not to worry about the government intruding into religious practice. In turn, the government should not be run by a particular denomination. To prove his mind set, when Jefferson was President, the first three things he ordered were: the Bible was to be taught in ALL public schools; the Native Indians were to be ministered to by Christian missionaries, paid for with government funds; and last, the Marine Corps Band was to play in all Sunday worship services, which were held in the Capitol Rotunda, and attended without missing one service, by President Jefferson. The term, “separation of church and state,” IS found in the original Constitution of the U.S.S.R. Our 2nd. amendment:” CONGRESS shall make NO LAW respecting the establishment of religion, NOR PROHIBIT the FREE EXERCISE thereof.” Courts who have ruled on such matters are in direct violation of our Constitution. Now where’s Gomer Pyle when we need him…”Citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest.”

  • nnmns

    You can sing all the Christmas carols you want. Teachers can teach about religious music. They just can’t put those carols into programs that might lead people to think the school was pushing the religion. It’s simple and it’s right.

  • Mordred08

    cmaglaughlin: “I suppose some idiot will squeal, ‘separation of church and state.’ Well, idiot…”
    Yeah, I’m really inclined to listen to you now…
    “Our 2nd. amendment:’ CONGRESS shall make NO LAW respecting the establishment of religion, NOR PROHIBIT the FREE EXERCISE thereof.'”
    That’s the first amendment, genius. See what I mean? Is this ban really worth having to deal more with folks like this?
    “Now where’s Gomer Pyle when we need him”
    Gomer Pyle is a TV character. Sorry. I know it’s hard for you guys to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

  • cmaglaughlin

    Mordred08…I was never good at math, sorry. Thanks for not responding to the main body of my comment. Then we’d see how just how ignorant you are!

  • cknuck

    lawmakers are so shortsighted the things that are becoming legal and the things that are now illegal with help the world to end itself. I know for a fact that the framers did not intend Christmas being illegal/against the law or not permitted in schools.

  • jestrfyl

    Shows what you know… Did you know it was the Puritans (our founding parents’ grandparents) who made Christmas celebrations illegal? They are the same ones who placed so many humorless restrictions on life – and the model for much of the theology you espouse. Accept this sort of rule not as a restriction on faith, but as a way to give faith extra force and significance. Otherwise some of the great Christmas music is once more easily reduced to elevator muzak and simplistic, meaningless recitations.

  • cknuck

    You are right jest I know of no documented U.S. law until now that makes Christmas illegal.

  • Your Name

    “I know for a fact that the framers did not intend Christmas being illegal/against the law or not permitted in schools.”
    “I know of no documented U.S. law until now that makes Christmas illegal.”
    You “know” so little, ck. Christmas is NOT “illegal” nor “against the law” – anywhare – in the U.S.
    However, pushing one religion on the public over any/all others absolutely IS UN-Constitutional.

  • Alex

    “I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are: Christmas trees.
    It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, “Merry Christmas” to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu . If people want a creche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.
    I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.
    Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren’t allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.”
    -Ben Stein
    96% of Americans Celebrate Christmas. 80% of those people are Christians. Christmas is something that should be allowed in Public schools. To me, Christmas is a holiday of celebrating love, one peace, and happiness to all. Not stuffing Christianity down someones throat. Also, why shouldn’t kids be taught about god? why do we not teach children about Hanukkah or Kwanzaa around those holiday? Religion played a major roll in the formation of present day society. It is, to me, also violating my right of the 1st amendment, freedom of speech. The government is taking my right to say “Merry Christmas”. I also bet that if our founding fathers could hear about this, they would turn in their graves. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa should be allowed in schools, on the main street and also in public places. I should also be allowed to call a Christmas Tree, a Christmas Tree, not a “holiday” tree.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment gyozaboi

    If the Jews can call a Menorah a Menorah and the Buddhists such as myself can call the Zen Circle a Zen Circle, then the Christians should be able to call it a Christmas tree. Over here in Japan, we’re over 90% Buddhist/Shinto/non-religious, and we’re quite happy to call Christmas Christmas. We even sing the “overtly religious” carols. It’s just a Holiday.

    I don’t see how singing carols in public schools can remotely be misconstrued as “pushing” or “exalting” one religion over others. And even if it is, so WHAT? Why in the world should we start socializing belief systems? We’re not in China. If the majority of the people are Christians in the country, let them celebrate, they’re paying most of the taxes anyway. This all should be laissez-faire, just like the economy. I’m not gonna demand my child not get exposed to Apple when I own a small consulting firm. You Americans are WAYY too sensitive.

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