"It's offensive," one father of a student at the Ralph J. Osgood Intermediate School in Kings Park told CBS New York. "If you're going to remove words to not offend other religions, what about the religion that that song belongs to, which is Christianity?"
The fifth-grade students sang the edited classic — which mixed and matched verses in a way that left out the most religious references — at the concert, on Dec. 12. But that upset some parents, who felt the song was sacred and should have instead been left intact or instead been performed as an instrumental or kept out of the concert altogether. Some spoke out about it at a Tuesday board of education meeting.
"'Silent Night' at its core is a religious song. It's a sacred, religious hymn that tells the story of Jesus's birth," father Kevin McDonald said at the meeting, as reported by the Kings Park Patch. Cobbling together lyrics to water that down, he said, "should have been off-limits." In the comments section of the Patch story, he added, "there were many other songs that could have been performed, and there really was no reason to torture the integrity and meaning of 'Silent Night,' a sacred, simple, and timeless Christian hymn."
At the meeting, administrators were quick to say they were sorry to anyone they offended. "I apologize for that — it's the last thing anybody intended. Going forward, it's not going to happen again. They will be more cautious and cognizant of this particular issue when they select a song," Superintendent Susan Agruso noted at the meeting. "They meant nothing wrong. Clearly, we could have done something different, and in the future we will."
A statement on the school district's website also acknowledges the situation:
"The Board of Education sincerely apologizes to our community members who were offended by the change of lyrics to the song Silent Night and we share in your sentiment. This action was not approved by the Board of Education or district administration, nor is it their role to approve the songs chosen for our concerts. We are aware that no disrespect was intended on the part of any staff member. We will be taking steps to be certain this never happens again. As a Board of Education, we have taken offense to this action and again offer our sincerest apologies."
The idea of Christmas carols being sung in schools — similar to that of manger scenes being displayed on public property — has come under more and more scrutiny by religiously diverse communities. In 2009, a U.S. appeals court upheld a New Jersey district's ban on religious music after an angry father challenged the ruling. This year, a South Carolina public charter school banned Christmas carols, with or without lyrics, from its concerts, while a Bordentown, NJ, school banned three overtly religious carols. But Bordentown, New Jersey, reversed its decision after receiving a letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization, urging officials to reconsider.
"We get an enormous amount of complaints from parents around religious music, especially around holiday time," noted Liz Cavell, staff attorney with the non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation, which "promotes the constitutional principle of separation of church and state." She told Yahoo Shine that Christmas carols, in particular, are "a common source of angst in public schools" but that the issue is a legally complex one.
While fights over public manger scenes are also complicated, she explained, "public school property is not like a public square or public sidewalk, as children are young, impressionable and mandated by law to be there. So generally, I think courts are much more protective when it comes to what constitutes an endorsement of religion." That said, Cavell added, "Music is a different area of law because of the objective nature of art. And there is a canon of sacred music out there that's academically valuable."
Still, the foundation's position is that public schools should aim to choose secular holiday songs (think "Jingle Bell Rock" versus "O Come, All Ye Faithful"), since "there doesn't seem to be a dearth of secular music out there." That way, she notes, "nobody's excluded, nobody's offended, and nobody's songs need to be edited."