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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/16/2009

Religion and public schools at Christmas time: Can schools include sacred music in holiday programs?

By Valerie Strauss

“’Twas the nightmare before Christmas late last month for Michael Stratechuk of Maplewood, N.J., when a federal appeals court upheld a local school district policy barring religious music from school events during the holiday season.”

So begins a recent blogpost by Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the Washington D.C.-based First Amendment Center, which is an operating program of the Freedom Forum.

Haynes is referring to a Nov. 24 decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that public schools are not compelled by the Constitution to include religious music in holiday programs.

Stratechuk, a father of two, had sued the South Orange-Maplewood School District, arguing that removing sacred music from holiday programs amounted to discrimination against Christianity which violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

Haynes notes that religious songs in school events have been ruled constitutional by numerous courts--“as long as the program is educational and not devotional or proselytizing.”

So he proposes that those schools that want to include religious music in their holiday events simply make those events educational and balanced.

Many schools have gone the other way--essentially ignoring Christmas or pretending that it is entirely secular. That, Haynes correctly says, “is just plain silly.”

Equally wrong is the misconception by some educators that they can promote Christianity at Christmas as long as they give time to other religions too. The Constitution does not allow the promotion of religion in public schools at Christmas or any other time.

Teachers and administrators planning holiday programs should ask themselves these questions, as presented by the First Amendment Center, and there is a lot more information at the center’s website.

*Do we have a distinct educational purpose in mind? If so, what is it? It should not be the purpose of public schools to celebrate or observe religious holidays.

*If we use holidays as an opportunity to teach about religion, am I balanced and fair in my approach?

*Does the planned activity have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion? Does it, for example, promote one faith over another or even religion in general? The school’s approach should be academic, not devotional. It is never appropriate for public schools to proselytize.

I'm interested in what your school or your child's school does with holiday programs in this regard. Please talk about it in the comments or email me at theanswersheet@washpost.com.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 16, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education  | Tags:  religion in public schools  
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Comments

I would suggest one additional item for the checklist of questions for public schools considering including religious materials in their holiday programs: Do we present the argument that there is no god and/or that (at least) all but one of the many conflicting religions are superstitious nonsense? No program that presents religious material without considering these countervailing positions can be considered "balanced" or "educational".

Posted by: larryorr | December 21, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

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