U.S. Supreme Court declines plea of ban on religious music at N.J. schools

“Silent Night" and other religious songs will remain off the program at holiday concerts in South Orange-Maplewood schools after the U.S. Supreme Court declined today to take up a plea of the district’s ban on celebratory religious music.

The nation’s highest court ended a case that dates back to 2004, by deciding not to hear the petition brought by Michael Stratechuk, a parent who sued over the policy that bars presentation of religious songs.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban last year, and Stratechuk tried to take the case to the higher court.

Stratechuk, a musician whose two sons were in seventh and ninth grades when he brought the case, could not be attained for comment.

In a statement, school Superintendent Brian Osborne said the policy "was adopted to endorse an inclusive environment for all students in our school community. We have always felt our policy was constitutional and are pleased with the outcome."

In the 1990s, South Orange-Maplewood adopted a policy banning the use of religious songs in school performances. But the district enthused controversy in 2004 when a memo was issued to elucidate the policy, extending it to vocal and instrumental performances.

The policy came under fire from traditional groups and drew protests in South Orange and Maplewood. Opponents organized an "illegal" night of Christmas carols, Hannukah songs and other musical pieces in December 2004, according to Muise’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The policy roofed religious songs of all faiths.

The case was brought under the Establishment Clause of the First modification, which requires the government to be neutral toward religion.

The whole idea of variety and lenience, you learn those traits by understanding other people’s traditions and religious traditions.

The South Orange-Maplewood policy, which says its goal is to "foster mutual understanding and respect for the right of all individuals regarding their beliefs," permits religious music to be taught in the curriculum. But the music cannot be used to celebrate religious concepts, events or holidays.

By banning it from performance, the district essentially kept religious songs out of the program. Teachers tend to have students learn in class what they’re going to perform.

Despite the district’s stated policy, prior to 2004 some holiday concerts did contain Christmas music. In 2003, for example, according to the petition, one holiday concert included "Joy to the World," "O Come all Ye Faithful," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night."

The policy also prohibits any printed programs for any Holiday concert to have any graphics which refer to the holidays, such as Christmas trees and dreidels.

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