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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

That Holiday Spirit

With the holiday season officially kicking off tomorrow, an interesting decision arrives from the Third Circuit.  The question:  can a school district adopt a policy forbidding religious music in holiday celebrations, including school concerts? 

The South Orange-Maplewood school district in New Jersey adopted such a policy in an effort to achieve religious neutrality.  After receiving a complaint from a concerned parent following a holiday concert that included traditional Christmas carols, the district's Director of Fine Arts indicated that schools should avoid music representing any religious holiday of any faith and suggested instead secular seasonal selections of the "Frosty the Snowman" type.  Needless to say, this decision raised concerns with different parents, who brought a lawsuit.

Although these kinds of issues have become excessively polarizing, this case has a fairly straightfoward answer, which all the judges (including appointees of Presidents Carter, Clinton, and G.W. Bush) reached.  Although the court was handicapped by having to apply the somewhat tangled official doctrines surrounding Establishment Clause issues, the decision follows from pretty basic distinctions.

A school's decision not to have its students present religious music in the holiday concert is different from the decision to have the students sing such music.  The school district can hardly be obliged to present religious music in school.  If the school district's policy violated the Constitution, it would follow that an individual school's similar decision would too, with the impossible result that every school's choral director would be legally required to present Christmas music in the school concert, not to mention music requested by other religions represented among the school's families. 

Of course no one is trampling on a parent's right to have their children exposed to religious holiday music -- and children will get ample such exposure.  Just not in the South Orange-Maplewood schools.  Just because you have a right to teach your children something doesn't mean you have a right to have the school teach that same thing, if it doesn't want to.

Sigh.  I remember my high school holiday concerts fondly, with I and the other Jewish kids cheerfully singing Christmas songs and not worrying about it.  The South Orange-Maplewood policy does seem unnecessarily churlish.  But it's constitutional.

Posted by Jonathan Siegel on November 25, 2009 at 12:06 PM | Permalink


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Interesting - I have a child in the South Orange-Maplewood school district (and another heading there soon), and I knew nothing of this.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Nov 25, 2009 3:27:28 PM

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