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Monday, December 19, 2011

'Tis the Season for Controversy: Understanding the Constitutional Boundaries in the Elementary School Christmas Concert

'Tis the season for controversy. And I'm not talking about the resentment that comes with being shortchanged in the office gift-exchange. It's the time of year when government and religion most frequently collide and thus tension and controversy are unavoidable.

A front-line in this battle is the elementary school "Christmas Concert," "Holiday Concert," or "Winter Concert." Simply the title attached to a gathering of children singing in the month of December can spark visceral reactions on either side of the issue. There is no neutral position in this conflict and any action or inaction is met with controversy.

Nationally, school districts have rescheduled annual concerts to January in an effort to give the students and teachers more time to prepare and to remove any reason for an association with Christmas. Locally, the Greendale School District, in what was likely more of a public relations boondoggle than actual religious hostility, came across appearing either cowardly or biased when it pulled a Hindu song from its holiday concert in response to a single parent's complaint.

On one side are those who believe that any public acknowledgement of a holiday with religious origins is a crime against the constitution while others believe that government has an obligation to recognize religion (so long as it's Christianity) at every opportunity. As unfortunately is so often the case when the public's knowledge of complex issue comes from sound bites, both sides are wrong.

Because both sides tend to rest their arguments in the First Amendment, to understand this issue it is appropriate to begin with its relevant text: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

As a result of the 14th Amendment and hundreds of years of court decisions, the impact of this clause expanded to restrain all actions (not just formal laws) of all levels of government (not just Congress). It is also important to highlight to oft-ignored term "respecting." It is because of this word that actions short of formal and explicit establishment of religion (e.g. saying that all Americans must be Protestant or requiring church attendance) but merely approaching or touching upon the establishment of religion are prohibited. Therefore, a local public school's song selections could amount to an unconstitutional action "respecting an establishment of religion." Constitutional jurisprudence likely is not included in the ordinary training of a new music teacher, yet every year, music teachers across the country are forced to tread into this veritable minefield in an effort to create a music program that will offend the fewest number of people; pedagogical aims, if present at all, are pushed to the background.

So where is the line when it comes to an action "respecting an establishment of religion" when it comes to what songs may be sung in an elementary school concert?

Answering this question depends upon a controversial and somewhat counter-intuitive premise: Christmas isn't necessarily a religious holiday. According to the Supreme Court, led in large part by the compromise-orientated and legislative jurisprudence of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Christmas has a secular component, and thus government acknowledgment of that secular component is acceptable.

This conclusion is based upon the determination that to many Americans, Christmas has significance entirely divorced from its religious background. There's nothing in the Bible or Christian theology about reindeer, decorated evergreens, or Santa Claus (even Santa Claus' connection to Saint Nicholas is strained). These symbols of Christmas have been coopted as part of the holiday, but have origins largely unrelated to the birth of the Christian savior (a story which itself many argue was coopted from other traditions).

Thus, although the notion might be highly offensive to devout Christians, according to the Supreme Court, celebrating Christmas by giving gifts, decorating a tree, and telling your children that an omniscient old man will invade their house in the middle of a winter night, is just something you do as an American, akin to watching fireworks in early July, overeating on the fourth Thursday in November, or watching an over-hyped football game on a Sunday in February. Although religious in origin, it has become a part of American culture, just as you don't have to be Catholic to wear green and decorate your home with clovers and leprechauns for the Feast of Saint Patrick on March 17 or wear red and exchange candy and flowers with your significant other on the Feast of Saint Valentine on February 14.

It is only because that Christmas has lost so much of its religious meaning that public Christmas trees or Christmas carols in public schools do not offend that Constitution. Ironically, the countervailing movement to demand to get "Christ back in Christmas" are actually laying the groundwork for the removal of all public acknowledgments of the holiday; if the holiday is popularly regarded as wholly religious, government has no place endorsing it.

Nonetheless, alongside the secular aspect, there remains an undeniably religious component to Christmas, and this religious aspect is reflected in much of the music of the season. This is where the line exists for elementary school music teachers and administrators. Devotional music or music that tells the religious story of Christmas is inappropriate for elementary schools. Therefore, songs like "Away in a Manger" or "Silent Night," cannot be included in a public elementary school's curriculum for this reason. However, songs that simply discuss the aspects of Christmas that have been recognized as secular, such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" are appropriate. Other songs regularly characterized as "Christmas Carols," such as "Jingle Bells," "Winter Wonderland," or "Frosty the Snowman" are entirely secular and therefore clearly acceptable for even the school districts that want to stay far away from the boundaries established by the Constitution. A simple rule of thumb is, if you'd hear the song in a church service, it's probably not appropriate for an elementary school. The issue gets more complicated for older students, particularly high school students, where the courts have recognized that it might be appropriate to include overtly religious music, such as Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, because of the educational value of incorporating such monumental works into the curriculum. But simply because a song is appropriate for a high school does not mean it is appropriate for elementary school.

It is because of this distinction between overtly religious music and secular music with religious underpinnings that Greendale School District was right to exclude a Hindu song, "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram," while still including other songs such as Feliz Navidad and Hava Nagila in its multicultural-themed winter concert. While the district has done an exceptionally poor job explaining its rationale for the decision to remove the song after a lone parent "felt offended about a religious saying in the song," and thus one can understand reactions like Greendale parent Jason Dobbs who characterized the move as "just thinly-veiled racism from the parents." However, Mr. Dobbs, who stated that he believed that "all songs that have religious overtones should be pulled," and others who share this view, fail to understand the nuances of this thorny issue. While the district administrators conceivably could have been motivated by bigotry towards the Hindu faith (but remember, the district did initially include the song, suggesting a lack of Hindu animosity, and thus, at worst, the district could be accused of cowardice for caving to a possibly bigoted parent), I suspect that the real reason the song was pulled was because upon conducting a closer review of a translation of the Hindi lyrics, the district recognized that the song was devotional and not merely cultural. The song is sung in the exercise of the Hindu faith, akin to a traditional Christian hymn, and thus inappropriate for a public elementary school. It is for this reason, not because it was in Hindi, referred to the Hindu faith, or used the word most feared by America's right-wing evangelicals, "Allah," that the song was properly pulled. "Feliz Navidad" acknowledges only the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday, akin to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Hava Nagila is wholly irreligious, although many Americans mistakenly believe otherwise as a consequence of the familiar misunderstanding that Jewish culture and the Hebrew language are not synonymous with the Jewish faith.

But these distinctions are not always easy to grasp and thus there is perpetual tension between those who believe any reference to Christmas (or Hanukah) is inappropriate for public schools and those who believe that Christian hymns should be included in the curriculum. It's ironic that school districts face these controversies largely as a consequence of an ill-informed public; one should regard it as the school district's responsibility to do a better job in ensuring an educated community.

Even when a school district tries to avoid controversy by excluding any reference to Christmas from its December concert, it is met with controversy on the novel theory that its ban amounts to an "establishment" of the religion of secularism. So far, this oxymoronic theory has not gained traction in courts, but that does not stop ideologues from espousing it when convenient.

A government has absolutely no obligation to acknowledge religion, and thus excluding all hints of religion from a public school music program is entirely consistent with the Constitution. The inclusion of the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday represents simply the line that government may not cross; it is entirely free to stay well away from that line by excluding all references to religion. And it is in this direction, away from the constitutional line, that school districts are well-advised to proceed.

The time has come for an end to the December music concert. While public performance of music must remain an essential part of the public elementary school curriculum for the important skills, knowledge, and experiences imparted through these activities, arbitrarily requiring the concert to be in December and based upon a holiday theme unnecessarily curtails the educational value of these events. Music teachers must be given the flexibility to choose songs best suited to the pedagogical needs of his or her students. Music class is an opportunity for students to learn about the nation's and the world's rich cultural history expressed through music, as well as the technical aspects of reading, writing, and performing this art form. Forcing teachers to try to accomplish these goals through the limited holiday music catalog effectively ties a hand behind their backs. For the parents who believe that it's not Christmas without hearing their child lisp his way through "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," there are plenty of other opportunities for that outside of school. Treating the music curriculum as merely cutesy entertainment for parents diminishes this important and under-appreciated subject. 

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