The Grinch Gets An Early Start This Year On Stealing Christmas At Public Schools

By Jeremy Tedesco

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase that there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes.  But I would add one more to the list: annual attacks on Christmas at public schools.  Here at Alliance Defending Freedom, we see these attacks every year.  This year is no different, except that they have started a little earlier than usual.

Across the nation, three schools operating under a complete misunderstanding of the First Amendment censored religious aspects of their “winter” (because the schools wrongly believe they can’t use the word “Christmas”) musical programs.  Here is a quick run-down of the situations:

  • Wisconsin: Wausau School District officials initially decided that one of its premier choirs would either have to eliminate all religious Christmas songs from their numerous holiday performances or perform four other types of songs for every religious Christmas song included.  A letter from Alliance Defending Freedom and public outcry resulted in a quick about face by the District.
  • New Jersey: Bordentown Regional School District officials banned the use of religious Christmas songs during “winter” concerts at elementary schools.  Alliance Defending Freedom sent the District a letter, explaining that its ban was unnecessary and unacceptably hostile toward religion.  The District quickly abandoned its decision, announcing on November 1, 2013, that “pieces with traditional and historical religious origins will be permitted” at upcoming elementary concerts.
  • California: Gilroy Unified School District officials cancelled the long-standing tradition of their state-acclaimed choirs performing at churches and other religious venues based on a handful of complaints citing concerns over the “separation of church and state.”  Alliance Defending Freedom sent the District a letter, explaining that their actions were completely unnecessary considering that the District’s music directors chose performance locations based solely on their acoustics.  Selecting venues based on the neutral criterion of acoustic excellence eliminated any perception that the District was endorsing religion.  We await a response from the District.

These situations have in common a misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause.  In large part due to the misinformation and intimidation of groups like the ACLU and Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), among others, school officials mistakenly believe that the Establishment Clause requires schools to build a brick wall separating church and state.

The above examples show that schools rely on this misinformation to restrict religion in an unnecessary manner.  As we pointed out in our letters to the Wausau and Bordentown School Districts, every federal court that has examined the issue has determined that including Christmas carols and other religious music in school choir programs fully complies with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Our Christmas and Public Schools Myths/Fact Sheet has more information about this and other commonly accepted, but false, information.

Ironically, when schools overreach on religious issues they can violate the Establishment Clause in a different way: by exhibiting hostility toward religion.  FFRF and similar groups often complain that including religious Christmas songs at school concerts sends a message of religious endorsement to the audience.  In addition to being legally incorrect, the FFRF’s recommended action—banning all religious Christmas music—actually requires schools to be hostile to religion and send the unequivocal message to Christians that expressions of their religious and cultural traditions are unacceptable at school.

Alliance Defending Freedom makes every effort to educate public school officials that the Establishment Clause does not require them to be the enemy of all things religious.  An important piece of this education is informing them that school musical groups have the right to include religious carols in their Christmas concerts (and yes, schools can call them “Christmas” concerts).  And as the Wausau and Bordentown situations above make clear, schools often make the right decision when they get all the facts.

If you are aware of attacks on Christmas at public schools in your community, please contact Alliance Defending Freedom at 1-800-835-523, or online via our Legal Help Form, so we can educate school officials in your district as well.  Together, we can restore a proper understanding of the Establishment Clause in our public schools.

Author: Alliance Defending Freedom