Assemblyman RONALD S. DANCER
District 12 (Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean)
Allows school district to teach about traditional winter celebrations, display holiday symbols on school property, and include musical selections with religious themes.
CURRENT VERSION OF TEXT
An Act concerning winter celebrations in public schools and supplementing chapter 36 of Title 18A of the New Jersey Statutes.
Be It Enacted by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey:
1. a. A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students, faculty, and other staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including:
(1) “Merry Christmas”;
(2) “Happy Hanukkah”; and
(3) “happy holidays.”
b. Except as otherwise provided pursuant to subsection d. of this section, a school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of:
(1) more than one religion; or
(2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.
c. A school district may include musical selections with religious themes at winter or holiday programs if the winter or holiday program also includes musical selections of:
(1) more than one religion; or
(2) one religion and music secular in nature.
d. A display relating to a traditional winter celebration may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.
2. This act shall take effect immediately and shall first apply to the 2014-2015 school year.
This bill provides school districts with the option of educating students about the history of traditional winter celebrations and allows students, faculty, and other staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations. Traditional greetings include, but are not limited to: “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” and “happy holidays.” The bill also allows a school district to display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree. However, the display must include a scene or symbol of more than one religion, or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol. The bill provides that the display relating to the traditional winter celebration may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief. Finally, the bill allows a school district to include musical selections with religious themes at winter or holiday programs if the program includes musical selections of more than one religion, or one religion and music secular in nature.
Federal courts considering the issue in particular contexts have held that public schools may permissibly include seasonal religious expression in holiday displays and programs. For example, in Clever v. Cherry Hill Township Board of Education, 838 F. Supp. 929 (D.N.J. 1993), the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey upheld a school policy that permitted religious symbols to be used in a holiday display and school calendars. The court stated that, “Christmas and Chanukah are celebrated as cultural and national holidays as well as religious ones, and there is simply no constitutional doctrine which would forbid school children from sharing in that celebration, provided that these celebrations do not constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and are consistent with a school’s secular educational mission.”
Similarly, in Sechler v. State College Area School District, 121 F. Supp. 2d 439 (M.D. Pa. 2000), the court upheld a school’s holiday display and music program that included religious symbols and songs, finding that the program represented the customs of several ethnic and religious groups within a subtext of celebration, and did not favor one religion over others or religion over non-religion.