As a Jewish boy growing up in Texas, Joel Schwartzberg performed many traditional Christmas songs in the elementary school choir.
Uncomfortable about singing evangelical versions of songs like “Silent Night,” Schwartzberg kept his lips sealed during those parts. He remembers being told by his teacher that he had to sing all the words if he wanted to participate.
Schwartzberg, whose young children are about to enter school, said those memories surfaced this month when the South Orange-Maplewood school district decided to ban instrumental Christmas carols at school-sponsored holiday concerts.
The move has brought considerable publicity to Maplewood, located about 10 miles west of Newark, and echoes a larger debate over what public religious displays or expressions are acceptable during the Christmas season.
There have been several other publicized disputes in New Jersey towns, including Egg Harbor Township. The school board there voted earlier this month to remove “Silent Night” from an elementary school holiday program after a parent complained, then voted to reinstate the song after the complaint was withdrawn. The program already included songs celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
There have been lawsuits involving a public holiday display in Cranston, R.I.; a school nativity scene and performance of Christmas carols in Bossier Parish, La.; and a school in Saginaw, Mich., that prohibited a student from passing out candy canes containing religious messages.
'Reasonable person' standard
Courts have used the “reasonable person” standard — essentially, whether a reasonable person would feel a religious display or expression constituted an endorsement of religion. Jared Leland, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., said that courts have frequently ruled that recognizing the religious tradition of a particular holiday does not meet that standard.
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based organization that funds legal actions in cases involving religious expression, is considering challenging South Orange-Maplewood’s decision in court.
“When these school boards start censoring Christ out of the holidays, they’re on the wrong side of the Constitution,” said Gary McCaleb, the group’s senior counsel. “It’s a kind of Orwellian doublespeak, in my mind.”
Jessica Schneider, a 16-year-old who plays in the ensemble band at Columbia High in Maplewood, called the district’s Christmas carol ban “kind of silly.”
“Personally, I don’t know anyone who objected, and as a student who’s part of the school’s Jewish population, I would think I would have,” Schneider said. “To me, it’s just music and it’s giving the community something to be happy about it.”
State and federal laws hold that teaching about religious holidays and practices is acceptable in schools as long as the holidays are not celebrated. Holiday displays are allowed as long as they do not advance religion and are temporary in nature.
Schwartzberg said a line can be drawn.
“When students are compelled to engage in evangelical activities — even without intent or proselytizing — with the alternative being nothing except to sit out, I think that’s not appropriate.”