Dec. 4, 2012 The Capitol Christmas tree, 73 feet tall, glows against the backdrop of the dome. Marvin Joseph / THE WASHINGTON POST The 2012 Capitol Christmas tree, 73 feet tall, glows against the backdrop of the Capitol dome.
(By Marvin Joseph / THE WASHINGTON POST)

It’s not even Thanksgiving but the battle over religious Christmas music at school events has already been enjoined in at least two school districts as the seemingly never-ending confusion continues over the answer to this question: Can public schools play religious music in holiday celebrations?

In the Wausau School District in Wisconsin, a  tussle over whether and how much religious Christmas music could be played at winter concerts in December began when the district got a new fine-arts coordinator who decided to review the issue, according to the Wausau Daily Herald.  A school board committee voted to limit but not eliminate religious music at these events, and, apparently, the choir director at one high school got the mistaken notion that he had to play a certain number of secular songs for every religious song. He decided to cancel the program, but there was an uproar over the decision and the committee decided to reverse itself and choice practice began once again.

In the  Bordentown Regional School District in Bordentown, N.J., Superintendent  Constance J. Bauer said in an Oct. 18 statement on the district website that she was banning religious music from elementary school December winter programs, according to The Blaze.

Recently some musical selections for the elementary winter concerts were questioned. The matter has been taken under review by the district solicitor, who issued an advisory letter that in light of a New Jersey ruling: Stratechuk v. Board of Education of South Orange-Maplewood School District, 577 F. Supp. 2d. 731 (D.N.J. 2008), that religious music should not be part of the elementary program(s).

That didn’t go over at all well in the district, and the superintendent was pressured to change her mind. She did, announcing her decision in a Nov. 1 statement that said:

In reviewing additional legal considerations and advice on this matter and the expressed sentiments of the community at large, I have reconsidered the decision on the musical selection for the upcoming winter programs so that pieces with traditional and historical religious origins will be permitted.

 

So which policy — limiting religious music at winter events, banning it or setting no limits — is actually legal under the First Amendment, which says in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

A primer on religious holidays in the public schools, on the Freedom Forum’s website and sponsored by nearly 20 organizations, says in part:

May religious music be used in public schools?

Sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music. Concerts dominated by religious music, especially when they coincide with a particular religious holiday, should be avoided. The use of art, drama or literature with religious themes also is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum, but not if used as a vehicle for promoting religious belief.

What about Christmas?

Decisions about what to do in December should begin with the understanding that public schools may not sponsor religious devotions or celebrations; study about religious holidays does not extend to religious worship or practice. Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools? Probably not, and in any event, such an effort would be unrealistic. The resolution would seem to lie in devising holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students—programs that do not make students feel excluded or identified with a religion not their own. Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music related to Christmas and Hanukkah, but religious music should not dominate. Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate in the public school setting. In short, while they may recognize the holiday season, none of December’s school activities should have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.

Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, wrote in this piece:

 

Courts have consistently ruled that including religious songs in school events is constitutional, as long as the program is educational and not devotional or proselytizing. But any state mandate that sacred music must be a part of holiday programs is likely to run afoul of the establishment-clause prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

The First Amendment solution is stunningly simple: Schools should plan holiday programs that are educational in purpose and balanced in content. Nothing in the First Amendment prohibits public schools from educating students about music, religious and secular, as part of a comprehensive music program that exposes students to a variety of traditions and cultures.

Of course, it is also true that nothing in the First Amendment requires schools to include religious songs … But millions of Americans celebrate Christmas in December, and for schools to pretend that Christmas either doesn’t exist or is entirely secular is just plain silly….

Since somewhere in the firmament it is written that every public school must have a holiday concert in December, school officials need to get it right. That means ignoring the Restorers who want to re-impose an earlier regime by converting school auditoriums into local churches. But it also means ignoring the Removers who seek to eliminate all mention of religion in public schools.