- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2013

Silent night, indeed.

A New Jersey school district is facing pressure this week to reverse a new edict that bans religious songs and carols from being used in upcoming holiday concerts.

J. Matthew Sharp, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, has asked the Bordentown Regional School District to rescind its policy that “likely crosses [a] constitutional line” by excluding religious music, regardless of its demonstrated cultural value and educational merit.

“Schools are going overboard by banning Christmas songs and carols,” Mr. Sharp said in the letter to school district officials. “… Nothing in the Constitution requires this to be banned. It is an overreaction from schools to think that these things are not allowed.”

Citing in part a 2004 state court ruling, Bordertown Superintendent Constance J. Bauer issued a statement Oct. 18 notifying Peter Muschal Elementary School that some musical selections for the school’s winter concerts were being questioned and that “religious music should not be part of the elementary programs.”

But Mr. Sharp said school administrators were misinterpreting what the courts have ruled.

“Because singing a wide variety of religious songs, particularly during the holiday season, is simply a result of the dominance of religious music in this field, courts have never considered this fact to either unconstitutionally advance or endorse religion,” he said.

A similar ban nearly took place at a public school in Wausau, Wis., where district officials proposed that the number of religious songs in holiday shows be cut down. Phil Buch, the chair of Wausau West High School protested by temporarily disbanding the school’s Master Singers music ensemble.

Local media reported the story but it eventually made its way into national news. With the weight of national attention and anger the school board backed down and permitted the director’s original choices of music for now. On Tuesday, the student choir began practicing its music again, and the Alliance Defending Freedom claimed victory.

The conservative legal group is now turning its attention to Bordentown’s board of education in its attempts to remove the banning of religious songs.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled on the issue in 2004, after local parent Michael Stratechuk sued the district, claiming the policy violated the constitutional rulings on the separation of church and state.

The judges said public school administrations have the authority to choose which songs are appropriate based on constitutional guidelines to create a secular “inclusive environment.”

“The Third Circuit ruled that while the First Amendment does not require schools to include religious music, neither does it prohibit schools from including religious music,” Mr. Sharp said. “What the First Amendment does require is that the Bordentown Regional School District remains neutral towards religion and refrains from demonstrating an unconstitutional hostility towards songs with religious origins.”

Furthermore, Mr. Sharp argued that banning everything related to religion will lead to further complications for schools who wish to teach Shakespeare, certain philosophies and even early American history.

“Our culture is infused with religion,” he said. “Even though the songs have a religious origin, that doesn’t mean they should be banned in school.”

Mr. Sharp expects a difficult battle ahead with the Bordentown board of education.

“The school board seems to be digging in their heels here. They don’t appear to be giving any ground,” he said.

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