the problem is the schools shouldnt be wresling with this alleged problem. they shouldnt be doing it at all. both the 1st amendment of the federal constitution and the arizona constitution forbid mixing religion and government!

Schools wrestling with holiday concerts

Anne Ryman The Arizona Republic Dec. 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Teachers call it the "December dilemma."

Holiday decorations appear in the classrooms, and choruses and bands prepare for their annual winter concerts.

Educators then must wrestle with a question that has grown thornier in recent years: How much of the music and decorations can have a religious theme?

Can the chorus sing Silent Night? Can the Christmas tree have a star? Can there be a creche or a Menorah?

From a legal standpoint, the guidelines are fairly clear: It's OK to have religious motifs if they're for educational purposes. But the details can get tricky.

And that has given rise to a patchwork of approaches across Arizona and the rest of the nation. It also has generated lawsuits in some states and caused parents and advocacy groups to press for changes.

This year, the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund,a Christian legal group, has lined up 800 attorneys nationwide to be ready to sue if a school prohibits religious Christmas songs in its concerts. It needs a complaint from a parent to intervene. The group contacted more than 9,000 school districts this year reminding them that the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that public schools must ban religious songs.

On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union also is poised to act. In 2004, it sued a Louisiana school district for displaying a nativity on campus and including religious songs in its holiday program. The suit was later dismissed.

The skirmishes are part of the continuing war over separation of church and state. But unlike other battles, such as the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, this one hits people close to home, as parents feel their kids are being denied or subjected to affirmation of a particular faith.

Schools often fall into two camps: They quietly avoid religious songs in favor of more generic tunes such as Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells. Or they offer a sprinkling of songs from different religions and fill much of the concert with secular holiday songs.

"Some years it works out better than others," said Judith Durocher, choral director at Pinnacle High School in northeast Phoenix. She expects criticism this year because the winter concert has more religious songs than usual. The concert will feature a Hanukkah song and Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, which features several religious old English songs.

In contrast, Yavapai Elementary School in Scottsdale avoids religious Christmas music altogether.

This year's concert will include It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas, Jingle Bells and Santa Claus, You Are Much Too Fat.Others are a Hanukkah song, a Spanish song and an African song.

"We don't do Silent Night," Principal Wendy Cohen said. "You have to be real sensitive you don't infringe."

Schools that offer a mix of music tend to weigh the numbers carefully.

Julia Kelly, principal of Las Sendas Elementary in Mesa, said most of its concert must be non-religious tunes along the lines of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

"It doesn't mean you can't have a piece of religious music thrown in there," she said.

The upcoming orchestra concert features a Christmas hymn, O Come, All Ye Faithful, and an Israeli folk song, Dreidel.

Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix takes a more direct approach.

Parents are told up front that students will study religious music because much of vocal music is religious text, said Mark S. Francis, the school's founder and executive director. This year's concert will not include any overtly religious songs, but past concerts have included pieces from Handel's Messiah.

Some parents say it's unfortunate that schools feel the need to ban Christmas songs.

"They should feel free to sing any songs that are pretty," said Linda Gomillion, whose daughter attends Pinnacle in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Schools in the district don't ban religious Christmas songs. But they're advised that if they include one, they should balance it with songs from other cultures, said Jeff Smith, Paradise Valley's director of curriculum and instruction. Principals should use "winter concerts" or "holiday concerts" instead of Christmas concerts.

Scottsdale parent Jody Stachel, who is Jewish, said she doesn't mind if schools leave out religious songs entirely and have children sing holiday songs about snow and winter. But if a school decides to perform a Christmas song, it's a good idea to include a Hanukkah song, she said.

Holiday decorations also can be a minefield for schools.

In the Paradise Valley district, schools cannot prominently display a Christmas tree with ornaments and a star.At Mesa's Las Sendas, Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands are allowed, but not nativity scenes.

In the Yavapai school office, there is a small pine tree, snowmen, a Menorah, reindeer, Spanish greeting cards that say "Feliz Navidad," a Kwanzaa brochure, a sign that says "Peace" and a stuffed Grinch.

Principals say the shift away from religious themes began in the mid-1980s out of respect for children who don't celebrate Christmas. Schools walk a fine line: The First Amendment prohibits public schools from promoting religion, but also prohibits them from inhibiting religion.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled explicitly on religious songs in schools. Attorneys often rely on a 1980 appeals court decision that upheld the use of religious songs in schools for educational purposes.

That has given advocacy groups a basis on which to attack any bans.

Mike Johnson, senior legal counselor for the Alliance Defense Fund, calls concerts such as Yavapai's, which excludes religious Christmas songs, "political correctness run amok."

Johnson said it's legal to perform religious songs such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and to call concerts Christmas concerts. It's also OK to have Christmas trees, he said, because the symbol is viewed as non-religious.

The organization has intervened in several cases to press its cause.

In Texas last year, it sued the Plano Independent School District in federal court after the district prohibited students from wearing red and green to winter parties and banned students from exchanging candy canes with religious messages on them.

The group also intervened in an uproar last year when an Oklahoma City-area school banned a nativity scene and the hymn Silent Night from the holiday play. Lakehoma Elementary School also removed Christmas references and symbols but kept ones for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Silent Night was later added back in.

Arizona has not had a similar high-profile case in years.

The law is also fairly clear on decorations in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a nativity scene is constitutional if displayed for a non-religious reason such as to celebrate the holiday. But attorneys advise schools that it's best to display a variety of holiday symbols just to be safe.

There is no magic formula for schools to follow, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington, D.C. But schools can avoid problems if they respect all religions and not single out or promote one, he said.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said some schools try to duck the issue completely by avoiding religious songs or displays.

"A lot of people are frustrated that there are a lot of schools that haven't worked this through." Haynes said.

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8072.

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