'Tis the Christmas season and in the weeks leading up to the long-awaited winter break, public schools ring out in song. Listen closely, and you will probably hear a few grumbles bah-humbugging about the musical selection. In a country so prideful of its First Amendment Rights, it is no wonder that United States' public school stakeholders raise concerns about what should be included and what must be excluded during this time of the year.
While private schools are free to sing as much religious music as they want, a separation between church and state limits what can be sung in public schools. Known as the Establishment Clause, law prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion. In turn, public schools must abide by the Establishment Clause or risk endorsing a particular religion. Whether it be at the annual winter concert or part of a classroom lesson plan, the choice of a holiday song requires careful consideration. Secular songs (non-religious songs like those about Frosty, Santa, and Rudolph) are permissible. Not all religious songs must be removed from the concert program, however.
In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly. In short, this case involved a dispute concerning a Christian nativity scene that had been displayed on public property. Since other decorations representing other religions symbols and items accepted as secular (such as a Christmas tree) stood alongside the nativity scene, the Court ruled that no part of the holiday display would need to be removed. This case is significant in understanding how public schools can include religious songs in their Christmastime celebrations and education during the winter holiday season. For religious music to be included, multiple religions must be represented. The religious aspect of a Christmas program or a classroom song library cannot dominate the show or lesson. "For instance at a winter public school choral concert, it is permissible to include some songs based on holidays such as Christmas or Chanukah. However, it would not be appropriate for a public school choir to perform a concert dominated by the songs of a single religious tradition" ("The 'December Dilemma'"). Doing so would mean that the public school is sponsoring a religious preference. In turn, this would send a non-verbal message to the portion of school stakeholders who do not share the same religion that was represented in the school-sponsored event. The message would be that those with different beliefs are not accepted into the community served by the school ("Know Your Rights").
Including religiously diverse songs may not seem like a challenge, but since school staff oftentimes skirts around the topic of religion most of the year, the task can be difficult. Enlisting help from students' parents is beneficial. Educators strive to know their students' backgrounds. Parents can help in this endeavor by providing their children's teachers with information about their family's beliefs. Parents may want to share information about the holidays they observe and the traditions they follow during those times (which may include a list of dates a student will be absent from school because of religious holidays). Once the dialog begins, a conversation about how the school celebrates special occasions can be addressed. Teachers may learn new songs to include in the Christmastime festivities, or they may even learn some students' religious beliefs may prohibit participation.
Since students come from so many backgrounds and systems of belief, would it be prudent for schools to ignore the holidays and drive student attention to learning as usual? According to the Anti-Defamation League, "[the] December holidays present public schools with the challenge of acknowledging the diverse religious beliefs of their students while avoiding the kind of divisiveness that the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state is designed to prevent" ("The 'December Dilemma'"). Ignoring students' beliefs is an affront to a school's key stakeholders. Teachers and administrators must recognize that to some, religion is a major factor in shaping a person. Some students may even feel that religion defines them. To disregard one's religion may send a message of exclusion.
Music has the power to bring people together. Teachers can use music as a classroom tool to broaden students' understanding of cultural and religious differences. When introduced to new holiday music in this way, students receive the message that their beliefs and the beliefs of their classmates matter. Schools are an essential part of society because they foster a climate where there is respect for all. Deck the school hallways this holiday season with voices rising in song wishing love and goodwill to our families and neighbors!