A Silent Night for Religious Music in Public Schools
Every year, our family has a tradition of playing cheesy Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. Silly, I know, but the tradition is much less about the actual message of some of the music (whether religious or secular) but a reminder of the holiday season.
From shopping malls to pizza parlors, there are constant reminders everywhere of the holidays in the form of songs, signs, and symbols. Schools especially have to ride that fine line between acknowledgment of the holiday season, and formal endorsement of a religion. The third circuit court of appeals recently ruled on whether a New Jersey School District, to further its policy of religious neutrality, can ban holiday religious music at all school events. This ban includes playing religious instrumental music (without signing) as well.
On one side of the debate are parents who feel that a ban on religious music is violating the First Amendment’s freedom to worship. Obviously, children of all religions attend public school and there are those parents who would like to have some incorporation of religious traditions in their children’s curriculum.
On the other side are those parties that feel that in singing religious songs, the school would be promoting religion. What the court’s ruling basically means is that songs like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” are acceptable and songs like “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are banned. The current New Jersey case is just putting a new face on an old battle.
Establishment Clause cases have always been controversial because the very nature of the claims will always be in tension with the Free Exercise clause of the Constitution. If the government does something to censor or ban the presence of religion, it is seen as infringing on an individual’s constitutionally protected freedom to worship. If it does not do anything, then its inaction is often characterized as endorsing religion. At its essence, the Establishment clause seeks to maintain the secular nature of the government. In doing so, the hope was that is would allow for the free exercise of religion. The reality of this difficult balancing act is never that simple.
The presence of religion in schools in an area of particular concern because of the highly impressionable nature of children. In a recent LegalMatch study, there was a much higher interest in inquiries surrounding religious discrimination and its related issues than there were in concerns relating to the establishment clause. Essentially, people are more likely to bring a claim when they feel that they are being discriminated against on the basis of religion or that they are not able practice their religion than they are to feel threatened by the presence of religion.
In my opinion Christmas music has taken on much more of a seasonal rather than religious tone. The music is much more about the holiday that it embodies and much less about any religious message it is sending. At least, when it is played outside of a church. I think that there is a major difference between signing a song with religious undertones and displaying a nativity set at a school and that many of the songs at issue are just not that offensive.