The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, yesterday filed its opening brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, challenging the constitutionality of a New Jersey school district’s policy that banned the performance of traditional Christmas music in the district’s public schools.
As so often is the case, a complaint from one parent resulted in the district’s policy that banned the playing of all Christmas music, including simple instrumentals without words.
Because of that complaint and the new policy that resulted from it, the high school brass ensemble was required to “eliminate” “traditional carols” from its “repertoire.” And the Martin Luther King (MLK) Gospel Choir, a student organization, was banned from performing at the high school holiday assembly for the student body because the choir sang religious songs. The new policy went so far as to remove from any “printed programs for any Holiday concert” any “graphics which refer to the holidays, such as Christmas Trees and dreidels.”
Since at least 1960, Christmas music had been a part of the Christmas holiday traditions in the school district. In fact, a year before the new policy, the school district held a December holiday concert that included such traditional religious songs as “Joy to the World,” “O’Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Silent Night.”
At first the school superintendent defended the playing of traditional Christmas songs to the complaining parent. However, in a 2004 performance review by his school board, he was told to eliminate them. Consequently, in a closed-session meeting a new policy was developed that required the cleansing of religious holiday music of any kind.
As a result of the ban on Christmas music, in December 2004 the Thomas More Law Center filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Michael Stratechuk and his two children, who were students in the New Jersey school district when the policy was enacted in 2004.
According to the Law Center’s brief, the school district’s ban on Christmas music conveys the impermissible, government-sponsored message of disapproval of and hostility toward religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, and it deprives the students of the school district the right to receive information and ideas, an inherent corollary of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Law Center, commented, “This anti-religious policy is yet another example of the militant hostility that many public schools have towards Christians and Christmas.”
Thompson continued, “Traditional Christmas music has long echoed in the halls and auditoriums of our nation’s public schools, reflecting our national celebration of this holiday season. Unfortunately, our recent history has not been so favorable to this holiday and its traditions. Even the word ‘Christmas’ itself is becoming a forbidden expression-a casualty to the forces of political correctness that consider it enlightened, if not outright fashionable, to remove all traces of religion from the public domain. If we do not stop these policies now, it is likely that they will continue to spread across our nation like an anti-Christian virus. This is an important case; it will likely decide the fate of one of our most cherished traditions.”
Robert Muise, the attorney handling the case for the Law Center, noted in the brief: “Christmas is a national holiday, and religious music in the public schools is one of the rich traditions of this season. Those that are hostile to these traditions hide behind the mantle of ‘tolerance,’ only to promote intolerance. Indeed, we learn to understand and respect traditions, customs, and beliefs not by being offended or threatened by the traditions of others, but by understanding the meaning of such traditions and why they have the capacity to inspire.”
The New Jersey school district policy at issue in this case was featured in a book, The War On Christmas, by former Fox News anchor, John Gibson.