Justices Decline Case on Religious Music at School

By Mark Walsh — October 04, 2010 2 min read
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On the first day of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court today declined without comment to hear the appeal of a parent who challenged a New Jersey school district’s restrictions on religious music at holiday performances in its schools.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District’s policy encourages secular holiday selections such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

“Music centered on Peace is also a nice touch,” an administrator’s memo said.

But religious selections such as “Joy to the World,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Silent Night,” are not allowed in winter concert performances, an administrator testified during a trial in the case, although such religious music could be taught as part of the music curriculum.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, held in November 2009 that the district’s policy was not hostile to religion in violation of the First Amendment, nor did it violate the rights of student to receive information and ideas.

“Certainly, those of us who were educated in the public schools remember holiday celebrations replete with Christmas carols, and possibly even Chanukah songs, to which no objection had been raised,” U.S. Circuit Judge Dolores K. Sloviter said. “Since then, the governing principles have been examined and defined with more particularity. Many decisions about how to best create an inclusive environment in public schools, such as those at issue here, are left to the sound discretion of the school authorities.”

The district’s policy was challenged by Michael Stratechuk, a father of two students in the district, who contends the policy is hostile to religion and infringes on his children’s right to learn about religious music.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court in Stratechuk v. Board of Education, South Orange-Maplewood School District (Case No. 09-1184), the father argued that the case would be a good vehicle for the justices to revisit their Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

“Christmas is a national holiday, and religious music in the public schools is one of the rich traditions of this season,” said the brief, prepared on Stratechuk’s behalf by the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The 3rd Circuit’s opinion, if left unchecked, will ensure the demise of this tradition.”

The school district filed a brief in opposition to the appeal stressing that the 3rd Circuit’s ruling did not say that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause did not allow religious music, only that the school district “had the discretion to reduce religious content at concerts.”

The justices’ refusal without comment to hear the parent’s appeal is not a ruling on the merits of the case.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.