(CN) – A New Jersey school district can bar “celebratory religious music” at school-sponsored events without running afoul of the First Amendment, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
Michael Stratechuk, the father of two students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District, sued the district over its policy against religious-themed Christmas carols being performed at a holiday concert. He said the ban amounted to an anti-religious stance, and violated the Establishment Clause and his children’s “right to receive information and ideas, right to learn, and right to academic freedom.”
A federal judge sided with the school district, and the Philadelphia-based appellate panel agreed.
Though Stratechuk insisted that the policy had been put in place to “disapprove of religion,” the courts were more convinced by the school district’s claim that its policy was meant to “avoid government endorsement of religious holidays and a potential Establishment Clause violation,” Judge Dolores Sloviter wrote for the three-judge panel.
She noted that public schools are more limited by “constitutional principles” than private schools.
“Certainly, those of us who were educated in the public schools remember holiday celebrations replete with Christmas carols, and possibly even Chanukah songs, to which no objection had been raised,” Sloviter wrote. “Since then, the governing principles have been examined and defined with more particularity.”
The judges also rejected Stratechuk’s claim that the policy could be interpreted as being anti-religious and particularly anti-Christian.
“To the contrary,” Sloviter wrote, “it is clear that the policy, as interpreted, does not prevent … the teaching of religious holiday songs in the classroom or the performance of songs with religious content at the December concerts (albeit not songs specifically related to winter holidays).”
As the district court noted, the school district allows “religious material when appropriate, provided that it is presented objectively and that it fits within the curriculum.”