Here's the news: The MacFarland Intermediate School in Bordentown, N.J., holds an annual winter concert. This year, a pair of families approached the school principal with concerns three of the chosen songs were entirely too religious to be sung in a public school. The principal went to the superintendent, who went to the lawyers, who agreed.
And so do I. I agree 100 percent. Overtly religious songs have no business in a public school setting.
I believe this because — cue up the “Star Spangled Banner” — I'm an American.
Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association — a group that was a religious minority in Connecticut and who thought the state legislature was granting them a favor by allowing them to exist instead of realizing it was their right — wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his God ... that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions ... thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Five years earlier, from the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams on June 10, 1797: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion ...”
I bring the historical stuff up to make a very clear point: The Founding Fathers of this nation did not believe the government should get involved with people's religious freedoms, even if the vast majority of the nation believes in one religion over the others.
Public schools in America fall under the government; hence public schools should not be pushing one religion or another, in any way, shape or form, at any time, in any manner.
Can public school discuss facts and history about the world's religions? Of course.
Can they have their students sing songs praising Jesus Christ? I don't think they should.
And this is exactly what has some people up in arms in Bordentown.
The Facebook page of Bordentown City nearly imploded as a result of the administration's decision to take the three songs off the program. People were angry. Angry at the decision, angry at the people who brought it up in the first place, just plain angry.
The three songs in question — “The Kings From The East,” “Gloria” and “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” — were the ones tossed out. All three deal with the birth of Jesus, which is historical enough, but they all drift into religious territory.
For instance, “Gloria,” with lyrics like “Every knee will bow down, every tongue will say out loud, that you're the king and maker of all,” well, there's not much grey area there. I'm 100 percent sure Thomas Jefferson wouldn't think that was an appropriate sentiment for the government — again, in this case, the public school system — to be handing down. (In any way, shape, form, or manner, and in this case, by having a bunch of 10-year-olds singing it.)
The arguments on the Facebook page for the inclusion of the songs fell mostly into two camps.
The first camp believes, basically, in mob rule. Since it's their belief most residents want these songs included, they should be included. Sample post: “I agree! Power in numbers and I'm sure there are WAY more than 2 people that disagree with this decision! We need to stand up and be heard!”
Problem here is if we made moral and ethical decisions based on mob rule, we'd probably still have a segregated south, and genocidal leaders of the past (and present) would get a free pass. After all, the majority would rule, right?
The other main argument dealt with the “melting pot” argument. Namely, dissenting voices should shut up and celebrate our differences.
To that, I'd like to add a thought experiment: Should the Bordentown school kids be singing songs praising Allah? Same principle, different God. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush here, but I can't imagine the people who are screaming now about allowing “praise Jesus” songs into the concert would be OK with their kids singing songs praising Allah, although there are many lovely and beautiful songs praising Allah. In my Google searching, I'm finding they're called “hamds” and sport lyrics like in Zain Bhikha's “Give Thanks to Allah”
“Give thanks to Allah,
for the moon and the stars,
prays in all day full,
what is and what was.”
It's a nice sentiment up there, but I have a sneaky suspicion if the MacFarland Intermediate Middle School's winter concert was going to feature “Give Thanks to Allah” there would be an equally loud and entirely opposite shouting match going on.
My fine point: No one, least of all children, should have to sing overtly religious songs in public schools.
In defending their decision to axe the songs, the lawyers for the Bordentown School District cited a 2004 case —Stratechuk v. Board of Education South Orange-Maplewood— in which the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld the district's decision to not have religious music performed as part of concerts. The judges said, “public school administrations can determine which songs are appropriate according to constitutional guidelines to create a secular 'inclusive environment'” according to an 2010 AP story.
On the other side of the judicial argument, the United States Supreme Court has ruled schools can include religious music, provided it's part of a “secular program of education.”
Legally, it seems to come down to opinion. The music doesn't have to be included, but it could, as long as you cover your secular bases.
Listen: My opinion — well, mine and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and courts of law — is that it's probably best to leave religious thought out of the government.
Religious fact, historical information? Of course that could be included, or at the very least debated on a district by district basis.
But it's one thing to discuss religion and a whole 'nuther thing to sing songs in a public school praising God.
Any God. My God, your God, his God, her God.
Jeff Edelstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/jeffreyedelstein and @jeffedelstein on Twitter.