Court to Hear Christmas Music Arguments

It has been four years in coming but a New Jersey school district is going to face the music for banning Christmas music (even instrumentals).

The case surrounds the family of acclaimed orchestra conductor Michael Stratechuk of Maplewood, N.J., who began the fight on behalf of his school-age sons, Kurt and Karl.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District has been under fire since prohibiting all Christmas music that even hinted something religious, including instrumental songs.

Stratechuk says before the 2004-2005 school year, the district allowed religious music including Christmas carols. But that changed when the district adopted a strict policy banning all religious music.

“Rather than try to respond to all the various religions and try to balance them, it’s best to stay away from that and simply have a nonreligious tone to them and have more of a seasonal tone,” then-Superintendent Peter Horoshak told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2004.

A legal document filed in the case states, “According to Stratechuk, the policy conveys a government sponsored message of disapproval and hostility toward religion (specifically Christianity) and deprives his children of the right to receive information and ideas.”

The conductor added it “conveys the message that Christianity is disfavored.”

Going to bat for the Stratechuk family is the Thomas More Law Center and the American Catholic Lawyers Association, basing their arguments on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Robert Muise, the Thomas More attorney who will argue the case, said, “The Constitution prohibits school districts from adopting policies that disfavor religion. Contrary to popular myth, our Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. The school district’s policy is plainly unconstitutional.”

Arizona Community Debates ‘Holiday’ Tree

It’s July and Queen Creek (Arizona) is already talking about Christmas.

That’s because last year the town’s annual holiday tree lighting event stirred up a community controversy — a debate over “Holiday Tree” versus “Christmas Tree.”

The “Holiday Tree” debate came despite the name being more than seven years old, a change made in 2000 to recognize the overall season, not just Christmas, Town Manager John Kross has said.

The clash drew more than 60 e-mails from town residents asking for the tree to be called a “Christmas Tree.”

On Tuesday the Town Council’s Recreation Advisory Board Holiday Festivities Sub-committee, which is dedicated to planning the town’s holiday festivities, asked the Town Council to call the celebration “Queen Creek Hometown Christmas.”

Committee member and Town Councilman Jeff Brown said he pushed for the name.

“I felt that specifically it captured what we’re looking to have this event do,” Brown said. “There are so many new people in town we’re basically establishing new traditions. I think it captures the warmth and the family nature of the holiday season.”

Brown said there was a lot of support for the name.

“It is a Christmas tree by definition,” he said. “It’s not a holiday tree. I put one up in my home and it’s never been called a holiday tree.”

Assistant parks and recreation director Creighton Wright said the recommended name will be run past the town’s attorney to make sure there are no legal concerns.

The committee members were also asked to make recommendations to the Town Council about the location of the holiday event and the lighting of the tree.

Wright said the sub-committee suggested moving the location of the event to the town’s new library which will open this fall. The committee recommended having a new live tree donated to the library location. Wright said the committee also wants to keep an emphasis on the tree in front of town hall. He said town staff will be doing research on the recommendations and will be working to figure out how to keep a “festive appearance” at the library and town hall.

The Town Council is expected vote on the sub-commitees recommendations at a meeting in August.

School District Back in Court for Banning Christmas

A New Jersey school district found itself back in court Thursday defending a policy banning Christmas music only during the Christmas season. A father had sued the South Orange Maplewood School District over the policy on his own behalf and the behalf of his two children.

“The Constitution prohibits school districts from adopting policies that disfavor religion,” explained “Contrary to popular myth, our Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. The school district’s policy is plainly unconstitutional.”

The controversy first arose in 2003 when the school district, citing concerns over separation of church and state, banned all Christmas music from the school. Prior to the change in policy, Christmas music was played at the school during the holidays since 1967 with no complaints.

After the law center filed suit on behalf of Michael Stratechuk, the school district amended its policy to ban Christmas music only during the Christmas season.

“You can play Christmas music at the school during Easter under the policy,” said Brian J. Rooney, spokesman for the Law Center.

Attorneys representing Mr. Stratechuk argued the policy was unconstitutional because it had an unconstitutional effect on the rights of Christians. The school argued the purpose rendered for changing the policy was neutral, i.e. not meant to advance or inhibit a particular religion, and was therefore permissible.

“Even if the purpose was neutral, the policy is not in the clear,” explained Mr. Rooney. “If the effect moves away way from neutrality then constitutional violation.”

The case was originally dismissed by the federal district court for lacking a constitutional claim, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision “[b]ecause a categorical ban on exclusively religious music, enacted with the express purpose of sending a message of disapproval of religion, appears to state a claim under the First Amendment…, we conclude that the complaint … survive[s the] motion to dismiss.”

Attorneys for both parties were back in Court Thursday for 3 hours debating the policy.

One of the central issues debated was whether Christmas music was the same as other forms of religious activities, such as prayer. Attorneys for the Law Center were adamant that Supreme Court precedent established the fact that prayer was not on the same level as music.

A decision on the matter is expected in the near future.