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.