Monday, December 20, 2004

A Republican in the blue state of New Jersey is bucking what some decry as a national trend to eradicate all traces of religion in public places.

Steve Lonegan, who is running for the Republican nomination for New Jersey governor, is defying a school-district edict that bans religious music from holiday-season celebrations this year.

Mr. Lonegan has asked local residents of all religions to join him at 5 p.m. tomorrow “to sing and listen to” songs such as George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” and “Silent Night,” which have been banned from schools, even in instrumental form, by the South Orange/Maplewood School District.

Residents will sing and hear Christmas, Hanukkah and other music outside Columbia High School, where students and parents will assemble later that night for the school’s official holiday concert.

“The school district’s decision to prohibit even instrumental versions of classic Christmas tunes shows that those who claim to speak for tolerance are, in fact, the most intolerant,” Mr. Lonegan said.

“It’s time people lighten up and enjoy the Christmas and Hanukkah season, instead of denying the religious foundation of our nation and the holiday season,” said Mr. Lonegan, who is mayor of Bogota, a small town across the Hudson River from New York.

In a Dec. 6 statement, school board President Brian O’Leary said the ban is intended “to balance the important roles that religion and music can and do play in our curriculum with a desire to avoid celebrating or appearing to celebrate a religious holiday.”

He added that “religious music, like any other music, can only be used if it achieves specific goals of the music curriculum.”

Mr. Lonegan said his purpose in organizing the sing-along is “to send the South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education and others who will deny our religious heritage a message that we’re not going to let them take God out of our public life.”

Tom Wilson, the New Jersey Republican Party chairman, seconds that notion, saying that “some of the greatest works of art were commissioned by religious institutions and leaders, including much of the music we come to associate with a traditional time of year.”

The planned demonstration comes at a time when the annual battles over Nativity scenes and other Christmas-season displays are including counterattacks from a religiously motivated public against those who seek to cleanse the public sphere of religious symbols.

• Voters in Mustang, Okla., incensed over a superintendent’s decision to remove a Nativity scene from an elementary-school Christmas program took out their anger at the ballot box. A bond measure worth nearly $11 million failed, getting 55 percent of the vote on Dec. 14, short of the 60 percent needed.

• A privately funded Nativity scene in a public park in Milford, Conn., was the target of a demonstration yesterday by the group American Atheists. However, only four members of the group showed up, Fox News reported yesterday, while about 100 people carried signs and demonstrated in favor of the creche. Milford resident Robert Jones lamented to Fox News that “we can’t say Christ in public; we can’t say Christmas in public; we can’t say God in public.”

Mr. Wilson sees what he considers an absurd disconnect between the New Jersey school board’s actions and American cultural practice, affirmed by the same Fox poll that said 96 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas, a larger number than those who profess to be Christians.

“Just because a song refers to a religious figure doesn’t make it a religious song,” says Mr. Wilson. “Nor does some 10-year-old blowing it on a flute make it a religious statement.”

According to demographic studies, the United States is not only a religious nation, but is predominantly Christian.

A 2001 survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York that sampled 50,281 American adults found that 77.5 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, 14 percent follow no organized religion, 1.3 percent are Jewish, 0.5 percent are Muslim, 0.5 percent are Buddhist and 0.4 percent are Hindu.

As far back as 1892, in Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States, the Supreme Court ruled: “We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity.” In 1952, the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote: “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

In a Fox News telephone poll of 900 persons, conducted Dec. 3-4 by Opinion Dynamics Corp., 87 percent said they supported Nativity scenes on public grounds, with 9 percent opposed and 4 percent not sure. The poll’s margin of error is 3 percentage points.

The ban by the South Orange/Maplewood School District prompted David Hinckley, the “critic at large” for the New York Daily News, to write that the school district “is trying to take Christ out of Christmas, or at least out of Christmas music.”

Mr. Hinckley notes that the prohibition “doesn’t just mean the choir can’t sing ‘Adeste Fideles.’ It means the band can’t play an instrumental ‘Silent Night,’ which is apparently considered too evocative.”

Mr. Hinckley said the ban was “silly” but newsworthy only because “it’s unusual, not because it’s becoming a norm.”

He decried “the way some commentators are waving it around as evidence that a large crowd of secularist liberals is trying to throw all God-fearing Christians over the side of the American ship.”

But Mr. Wilson, the Republican chairman, said the school board’s ban is exactly that — another example of a larger trend, citing a federal court’s order, later reversed on a technicality by the Supreme Court, to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“What next?” he said. “Banning Halloween because it’s based on All Saints Day?”

Or will the next move, he asked rhetorically, be to stop the Supreme Court from opening its sessions with the clerk saying, as he now does, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

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