After more than five years of litigation, a United States Court of Appeals has upheld the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education’s ban on Christmas carols and other celebratory religious music at school-sponsored events.
In Philadelphia, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 24 there was “no constitutional violation” in the school board’s strict ban on religious music.
In the case, a parent complained that the district’s policy amounted to hostility toward religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.
In rejecting the complaint, the court cited a brief from the American Jewish Committee, which asserted that “neutrality towards religion is quite distinct from hostility towards it.”
Four other Jewish organizations — the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — also filed amicus briefs on behalf of the school board.
Marc Stern, assistant executive director of AJCongress, called the Third Circuit decision “a crucially important holding.”
“More and more, one is hearing from advocates of more government involvement with religion that if the government doesn’t actively become an advocate for religion on the same terms it supports secular causes it is being hostile to religion,” said Stern.
He said the appellate ruling “leaves school officials free to say, ‘We are going to teach about religion, but we are not going to celebrate it or engage in actual religious activity.’”
It also strengthens the hand of parents or community members who might complain that school-sponsored holiday assemblies “are much too religious in content,” said Stern.
The legal battle began in December 2004, when a Maplewood parent named Michael Stratechuk filed suit against the board and its superintendent, Peter Horoschak.
Backed by two conservative Christian law firms, the American Catholic Lawyers Association of Fairfield and the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., Stratechuk argued that the board violated the religious freedom of his two sons when it prohibited the Columbia High School band from performing Christmas music.
Robert Muise, who argued Stratechuk’s case for the Thomas More Law Center, said he was not surprised by the ruling. He called it a “road bump” and vowed to continue the legal battle up to the United States Supreme Court.
“If you have a policy that makes exclusions based solely on religious content, how in the world is that neutral toward religion? It’s nonsense,” he said.
“This is a trend,” he lamented. “We are trying to stop the trend. They describe Christmas as ‘the winter holiday.’ There are all these subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to remove religion from the public square, and we’ve been trying to stop that. That’s why we are not going to give up.”
But Stern said he believes the high court may not find enough legal merit to accept the case for review.
“This is not a novel claim. People have made these claims about hostility to religion before. I don’t see anything objectionable about this ruling,” he said.