I happen to like Christmas music. My collection includes everything from a version of Handel’s "Messiah" by the Choir of King’s College to Jean Ritchie singing "Brightest and Best." (I don’t have a cut of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"; you have to draw the line somewhere.)
But I don’t demand that the government provide my music for me or insist that the Constitution requires public officials to do so.
The Supreme Court yesterday (wisely) refused to take a New Jersey case dealing with public schools and religious music. At issue is a policy of the South Orange-Maplewood School District that insists that teachers remain neutral on matters of faith and omit celebratory religious music from public performances during holidays.
Religious music may be included in classroom instruction and may even appear occasionally on the programs at public events, but school officials decided that they didn’t want student performances to seem like worship services where some families would feel unwelcome. If you want to hear a kids’ choir belt out “O Come All Ye Faithful” at Christmas, go to church!
According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Superintendent Brian Osborne said the policy "was adopted to promote an inclusive environment for all students in our school community." Sounds reasonable to me.
Michael Stratechuk, the Christian parent of two students, didn’t like the policy, however, and took it to court. Represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a right-wing legal outfit in Ann Arbor, Stratechuk argued that the policy showed hostility to religion, particularly Christianity.
While the policy actually addressed the songs of all faiths, the disgruntled plaintiff seemed especially miffed that Christmas carols were left out of student performances in December. He claimed he was fighting for tolerance and a broader educational experience, but let’s get real. This was just one more skirmish at the Christmas front of the culture wars.
Fortunately, the federal courts didn’t buy Stratechuk’s argument.
The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Stratechuk v. Board of Education that the school policy was not hostile to religion and that federal courts should generally leave these sorts of decisions to school officials.
“Many decisions about how to best create an inclusive environment in public schools, such as those at issue here, are left to the sound discretion of the school authorities,” the three-judge panel held. “We see no constitutional violation in Policy 2270 or its application in this case.”
The Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene leaves that proper 3rd Circuit decision in place.
Public schools serve students of many, many faiths and some students who follow no spiritual path at all. Teachers and administrators have a solemn obligation to welcome all of them and to see that school events do not appear to favor one faith over others.
The good folks at South Orange-Maplewood School District are trying to do that, and I’m glad to see that the federal courts are letting them do so.
In the meantime, it’s getting closer and closer to the holiday season, and I’m itching to crank up some festive fare. Can somebody send me a version of “Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”?