BORDENTOWN TOWNSHIP — Four months after almost dividing the community, the subject of religious songs in schools returned to the Bordentown Township Regional School District.
Joseph Miller, interim superintendent, said during the April 2 Board of Education meeting that, approximately two months ago, he directed school administrators to tell faculty that musical selections with overt religious “connotations” would not be included in future school winter concerts.
”I was told very succinctly by the board that hired me that they had just suffered through the debacle of the Christmas music question and that they did not want a repeat of that,” Mr. Miller said during the meeting.
He added that, according to state law, if religious music is included in a public presentation, all religions worshipped by residents in a given community must also be included.
”That seemed to me to be impossible,” Mr. Miller said.
He said that from a logistical standpoint not all community religions could be represented, but said he also believes moving the winter concert to early January could alleviate the issue due to a majority of the religious songs being tied to December holidays.The matter came up during the public comment portion after some Bordentown High School students said they had learned about the superintendent’s directive.
The students, at least some of whom belonged to the school choir, presented district officials with a petition featuring more than 400 signatures from students, parents and other community members supporting the re-inclusion of religious songs.
In advance of last year’s Macfarland Intermediate School’s winter concert, some religious songs were removed after district officials were approached by parents. At issue were the songs, “Bring the Torch,” “Los Reyes de Oriente” and “We Sing Gloria.”Constance Bauer, former superintendent who retired earlier this year, subsequently announced she had reconsidered the matter.
Ultimately, the district opted to leave the decision to staff. While the original three songs were not included, “Silent Night” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” were added, both of which have lyrics referring to Jesus Christ as a savior.
Also slated for the performance were “Let It Snow,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Hanukkah Song,” “Deck the Halls,” “Winter Fantasy” and “In This House Tonight.”
The board tabled the issue as is awaiting direction from the New Jersey School Board Association. The Register News has contacted the NJSBA and is awaiting a formal response as of press time.
In addition, there is pending legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-12) that, if made law, would allow districts the option to allow traditional greetings, displays including symbols associated with winter celebrations – such as a menorah or a nativity scene – and musical selections with religious themes at holiday or winter programs.
The bill allows for such celebrations or displays so long as more than one religion or a secular counterpart is included.Mark Drew, board president, emphasized that the board itself has not made formal policy decisions on the matter, while board member Lisa Kay Hartmann said the administration effectively had done so by Dr. Miller’s decree.
Board member Steven Heberling disagreed with Ms. Hartmann.
”There has been no final decision made,” he said.Mr. Drew said further that he would be getting additional input from the law firm Parker McCay and that the board would be “reviewing this as a whole board very shortly.”
Some board members also appeared concerned with how the students learned of the superintendent’s directive, with Mr. Drew at point questioning students and Patrick Lynch, BRHS principal.
Mr. Lynch responded that he was unaware of how students learned of the renewed ban, while students said teachers had informed them.
”Why are teachers passing information to students that belongs on the administrative level?” Mr. Heberling said. “You’re telling me with all the music out there we can’t, for one year, shift away from religious music?”
Mr. Drew later suggested that should a group of students have similar concerns in the future that they be formally made through a student representative report, which is typically a part of the normal board agenda.
Ms. Hartmann questioned whether this meant students should not bring their concerns to the board, which Mr. Drew said was not the case.During the height of the controversy, Cameron R. Morgan, of Parker McCay, told the board and members of the public he continues to support the initial decision to remove the songs, based on a 2008 ruling involving the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
He added, however, that he would be confident of the district’s chances in court whether the songs were banned or not. He also noted he did not believe it would constitute an ethics violation if the board dictated song selection.