Court: Schools can ban religious music at assemblies

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A New Jersey school district’s decision to ban religious holiday music at assemblies is constitutional and not hostile to religion, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia quoted from an amicus brief filed by a coalition of Jewish organizations, led by the American Jewish Congress, in rejecting a parent’s complaint that the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s decision to not allow religious music at holiday concerts was unconstitutional and showed hostility to religion. The school district did allow religious music to be taught in regular music classes.

The court quoted the amicus brief in noting the flawed logic of the plaintiff’s legal theory. The decision stated that if a school district could not make its own decision that religious music isn’t appropriate at assemblies, it would mean that "almost every government action vis-à-vis religion would fall into one of two columns — pro- or anti-religion, promoting or hostile to — and be subject to Establishment Clause attack in either event."

The American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, National Council of Jewish Women and Jewish Council for Public Affairs also signed on to the amicus brief.

Marc Stern, co-executive director of the AJCongress, said the decision was "exactly what we wanted to see."

"Had we lost this, the landscape would have changed dramatically," he said. "You couldn’t have a holiday assembly without visible religious components."

"Now, music that is more seriously religious can be reserved for educational purposes," not celebrations, he added.

“We welcome the court’s recognition that a school district’s effort to create a religiously neutral environment for its students and to avoid Establishment Clause violations is a legitimate goal under the law,” said Kara Stein, the American Jewish Committee’s director of legal advocacy.

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