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A school district’s long-standing policy banning Christmas songs with religious references is under scrutiny after officials clarified that it includes the prohibition of the performance of instrumental numbers without lyrics.

Instead of tunes about Jesus, and even Santa Claus, the 40-member Columbia High School brass ensemble will be limited for the first time to seasonal selections such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman,” the Newark Star-Ledger reported.

Some parents of students in the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey are perplexed, including Eric Chabrow, whose son plays saxophone in the ensemble.

“There needs to be safeguards in school,” Chabrow told the Newark paper. “But musical notes don’t sanction religion.”

Superintendent Peter P. Horoschak explained the brass ensemble’s Christmas carols have slipped under the radar since the policy was adopted in the 1990s. A few have complained about it, he said, and this year the district is trying to be proactive.

“Rather than try to respond to all the various religions and try to balance them, it’s best to stay away from that and simply have a nonreligious tone to them and have more of a seasonal tone,” he told the Star-Ledger.

Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., said instrumental renditions of religious holiday songs are fine as long as everyone is included.

“I love music,” he told the Star-Ledger. “There are overtones to instrumental music. I just want to make sure it’s inclusive, then we don’t leave anyone out.”

The New Jersey School Boards Association said its sample policy allows for performance of songs from various ethnic or religious groups as a way of broadening students’ awareness, but districts are free to impose tighter restrictions.

“The law will permit a school-sponsored event to have religious music as long as it does not dominate the program, is not being used to promote religion and is presented for educational purposes to teach,” Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the organization, told the Star-Ledger.

The South Orange/Maplewood policy was clarified in an Oct. 29 memo by Nicholas Santoro, the chair of the district’s Fine Arts Department, who said songs such as “Winter Wonderland” or “Frosty the Snowman” are acceptable.

“Music centered on peace is also a nice touch,” he wrote, according to the Newark daily.

The memo also states that printed programs for holiday concerts “must avoid graphics which refer to the holidays, such as Christmas trees and dreidels.”

The newspaper interviewed Ellen Relkin of Maplewood, N.J., a parent of three children in the district who said the policy might be “a little excessive” but worries that people who don’t observe Christmas, such as Jews and Hindus, might feel left out of the school activity.

Related story:

Christmas in America
becomes battleground

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