A band director at a South Carolina high school had given students a choice of musical selections to play at a coming “Winter Concert,” but after they had made several selections and had started rehearsing them, the music suddenly was withdrawn, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The reason?

The numbers played at York Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Rock Hill, S.C., contained the melodies of “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” two traditional carols enjoyed in the Christmas season in churches, schools, communities and governments for generations.

“Schools shouldn’t have to think twice about whether they can allow their bands to play the music to time-honored Christmas carols like these,” said Rory Gray, litigation staff counsel for ADF. “School districts can and should allow religious Christmas carols to be part of their school productions.”

ADF sent a letter to the school explaining the court precedents that allow the carols to be played at public schools.

The letter explains “every federal court to examine the issue has determined that including religious Christmas carols in school music programs fully complies with the First Amendment.”

ADF pointed out that courts “have recognized for many years that Christmas carols ‘have achieved a cultural significant that justifies their being [performed] … in public schools.'”

The legal organization has sent out 13,000 letters to school districts across the United States explaining the issue.

The letter is intended as a pre-emptive strike on controversies that erupt regularly when anti-religion organizations seek to ban anything of religious faith in public schools.

It’s happened already this year, ADF reported. Christmas music was banned in Wausau, Wis., and the Bordentown Regional School District in New Jersey before school officials reversed their decisions when they were provided with an explanation of the constitutional basis for allowing it.

“These districts did the right thing,” the letter to superintendents said. “No federal court has ever ruled that including Christmas carols and other religious music in a public school’s music program violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

ADF said public schools’ “confusion about this issue and the legalities of celebrating Christmas in other ways has been largely caused by inaccurate information about the Establishment Clause spread by certain groups opposed to any religious expression occurring in public.”

The organization has posed a Fact Sheet and a Memorandum.

“Historically, students and teachers across America have freely celebrated the Christmas season by decorating classroom bulletin boards and Christmas trees, learning traditional carols for the annual Christmas program, and exchanging Christmas cards and gifts with classmates,” said the memo. “In recent years, certain groups opposed to public religious expression have spread misconceptions – through fear, intimidation, and disinformation – about the legalities of celebrating Christmas in public schools.”

The opposition has produced a new Christmas “tradition” of “violating the constitutional rights of students and teachers to seasonal religious expression.”

“Our Constitution acknowledges that people of faith have a right to openly express their beliefs in the public square. But many school officials attempt to prohibit students and teachers from expressing any religious aspect of Christmas,” said the memo. “Classroom decorations depicting snowmen and reindeer have replaced decorations such as nativity scenes and angels. Even the ‘Christmas Tree’ has often been degraded into a ‘holiday’ tree. Some school officials have gone so far as to prohibit the common greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ and, instead, insist that teachers and students merely say ‘Happy Holidays’ and refer to the Christmas break as ‘Winter Break’ or “Sparkle Season.'”

The memo explains that the First Amendment protects religious speech in public schools. It doesn’t require school officials to suppress seasonal religious expression.

“It is important to realize that the Supreme Court has never held that the Constitution ‘require[s] complete separation of church and state.’ In fact, a federal appellate court explained that the notion of a ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is an ‘extra-judicial construct [that] has grown tiresome.'”

The state only needs to be “neutral” in its treatment of religious believers and non-believers, the organization explains. The restrictions are only on government speech, not private speech.

The accompanying Fact Sheet notes:

  • Students are allowed to sing religious Christmas carols in public schools.
  • School officials can refer to a “Christmas holiday.”
  • Public schools may close on holidays such as Christmas.
  • There is not duty to recognize all religious holidays.
  • Schools cannot ban teachers and students from saying “Merry Christmas.”
  • Schools can have students study the religious origins of Christmas and read the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ.
  • Public schools can display a nativity scene.

The band director at the York Preparatory Academy had explained that there was a “communication from either the ACLU or a similar group that warned South Carolina schools against performing traditional Christmas carols and that threatened monitoring of concerts and possible litigation.”

ADF said its letter to 13,000 districts nationwide explains such threats are misinterpretations of the law.

ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said school districts “can and should allow religious Christmas carols to be part of their school productions, and they can lawfully help impoverished children through community service projects such as Operation Christmas Child.”

Kevin Theriot, ADF senior counsel, said the Constitution “both allows and protects the celebration of Christmas in public schools.”

“We hope the materials we are providing to school districts will help clear up the misinformation that groups attempting to cleanse all traces of religion from the public square have spread for far too long,” he said.

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