The holiday season is fast approaching and with it the issue of whether or not to let children sing religious music at public school holiday concerts. The U.S. Supreme Court declined at the start of this term to hear the case Stratechuck v. Board of Education in which a parent challenged a New Jersey school district’s ban on religious music at school holiday concerts, claiming the ban discriminated against religion. The 3rd Circuit had previously upheld the ban.
Opponents of religious music in public school holiday celebrations may find that this decision means little where school officials prefer to include traditional religious holiday music in their holiday concerts The existing legal precedent applies only to the 3rd Circuit and does not mandate removal of religious music from public school holiday concerts, merely permits school districts to ban it.
The school district involved in the litigation did not ban all religious music from its school curriculum. Instead it banned the public performance of religious music. But its ban was far-reaching in that it precluded even wordless instrumental performance of holiday tunes associated with particular religious faiths. As Stratechuk’s attorney Robert Muise noted, teachers tend to teach in class the music that will be performed. That may result in religious music disappearing from the school curriculum as effectively as if it were outright banned.
A 2010 MyMerryChristmas.com public opinion poll did not address carols specifically but did find that 91% believe that Christmas history should be taught in public schools to help improve attitudes about the difference between the secular and sacred aspects of Christmas.
An Education Week poll in Dec. 2008 that did specifically reference Christmas carols found that 79 percent of 302 queried believed public school students should be allowed to sing Christmas songs at school holiday concerts. Two percent answered “no, never” and 4 percent said only if the songs weren’t overtly religious.
In California, a substitute teacher is not content to leave the decision to school administrators. She recently began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative designed to ensure Christmas carols cannot be removed from schools by administrative fiat. Merry Sue Hyatt and her brother David Hyatt need 433,971 signatures by Mar. 29 to get their initiative on the state ballot. Hyatt had become upset when working for the Riverside School District and found out that songs with religious content were banned at the holiday party. While the ballot measure would require students to be given the opportunity to sing Christmas carols in school, it would also provide parents three weeks notice before the songs were performed with an opportunity to opt out.