As December rolls around, end of year festivities bring up issues pertaining to the separation of state and religion. This poses a considerable challenge to teachers—particularly choir directors and other music directors responsible for planning public school holiday concerts. While there are several laws regarding the legality of certain song selections at public schools, the majority of choices are left up to the discretion of the director, the school board and the community.
The Law: Because of the large role religious music has played in the development of choral music, it is permissible to include religious songs in public school choir concerts. See Doe v. Duncanville Indep. School Dist.
The Debate: When this debate was brought into question, it was argued that an education in choral music was not complete without an introduction to influential sacred songs. Legally, banning students from singing these songs is actually seen as hostile towards certain religions, as opposed to neutral.
A counter argument would point out that the majority of these influential sacred songs are based in Christianity. Are highly valued choral traditions are synonymous with Christian traditions?
The Law: Public performances of sacred music are seen as permissible as long as they are “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” See Abington School Dist.v. Schempp
The Debate: What falls under “a secular program of education” depends greatly on the attitudes and beliefs of community members. In urban schools where students come from a variety of backgrounds, the community may forgo Christmas Carols, or they may feature an eclectic mix of songs. In a rural, more conservative community, traditional Christmas songs may be considered an integral part of education.
The Law: School concerts should not focus on a single religion, and they must include secular songs.
The Debate: Once again, this statement could be interpreted in multiple ways. Though a song such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” has obvious ties to Christmas, it’s far from a church ballad and could be considered secular. And does single version of “I Have a Little Dreidel” make a Christmas Carol-filled lineup constitutional?
The Law: Songs which “call on God for His blessing and contain an avowal of divine faith” are considered altogether inappropriate within public schools. See Doe v. Aldine Indep. School Dist.
While songs such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” are obvious no-go's, other songs such as “Joy to the World,” rest in a grey space. Are lyrics such as “Let every heart prepare Him room” religiously tolerant?