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Echo Press Editorial: Exaggerated fears at Christmastime

Merry Christmas!

Yes, we can say that, or you can say that, without fear of reprisals. Just like you can say, “Happy Holidays” or “Happy Hanukah” or any other greeting you’d like to express over the holidays.

It’s a shame that some people walk on eggshells when it comes to sharing their holiday greetings. Too many people buy into the exaggerated fears and misconceptions spread on the Internet that those who say “Merry Christmas” are somehow in danger of being persecuted. It’s as if they believe that there are hoards of anti-Christmas “cops” running around arresting people for daring to say the words.

That same misconception spills over into our schools. Some believe that children aren’t allowed to sing Christmas songs in school that mention Jesus at holiday choir concerts. The truth is, they certainly can, as long as the school isn’t attempting to force all students to conform to a religious agenda.

The very issue has surfaced in Sauk Centre. A couple of parents there questioned the music and production chosen at a recent elementary school program. The Sauk Centre Herald reported about it in a front-page story on December 19. Staff Writer Randy Olson summarized an 11-page document, provided by the district, titled “Sacred music in the classroom” that offers insights into what schools can and can’t do based on court rulings.

Sacred music can be used in a religiously neutral manner as part of standard educational practices, the document noted. To adhere to the First Amendment, sacred music exemplifies the following: 1) musical practices of various historical periods; 2) musical practices of various cultural traditions; and 3) a variety of musical styles and genres.

The First Amendment, the document explains, “does not forbid all mention of religion in the public schools; it prohibits the advancement or inhibition of religion by the state. A second clause in the First Amendment prohibits the infringement of religious beliefs. Public schools are not required to delete from the curriculum all materials that may offend any religious sensitivity.” Examples, Olson’s story points out, include studying art history, which naturally brings reference to the Sistine Chapel and its religious renderings.

The courts have repeatedly held that religious music in public schools are constitutional. Olson’s story cites a 1978 case, Florey vs. Sioux Falls School District, when a parent objected to the use of Silent Night in a school Christmas program, arguing that its use violated the separation of church and state. The district’s policy, which allowed the use of sacred material for educational purposes and not for the promotion of religion was upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1995, A U.S. District Court dismissed the case of Bauchman vs. West High School, in which a 15-year-old student objected to the use of Christian songs claiming that they were sung prayers. The court found that “music has a purpose in education beyond the mere words or notes in conveying a mood, teaching cultures and history and broadening understanding of arts.”

The Herald story noted that all other court cases that have challenged the use of sacred music have been equally unsuccessful. The necessity of public schools to remain religiously neutral, while not restricting the appropriate use of religious materials, has been emphasized repeatedly by the courts.

Claims that there is a “war” being waged against Christmas are overblown. If that were the case, why have the courts ruled so convincingly when it comes to singing Christmas songs in school? So go ahead, say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays” or other greetings of good cheer. We should be more concerned about celebrating the deeper meaning of Christmas instead of getting caught up in words and exaggerations.