3rd Circuit lets suit proceed on religious music in school

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A lawsuit challenging a restriction on religious music in a New Jersey public school district can continue, a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel decided Oct. 5.

The case, Stratechuk v. South Orange-Maplewood School District, had been dismissed by a federal district court in September 2005. School-board policies prompted the lawsuit, filed by parent Michael Stratechuk, who argued that a restriction on performing religious music violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Stratechuk filed the suit individually and on behalf of his school-age children, Kurt and Karl, whose ages and grades were not reported. The 3rd Circuit opinion, authored by Judge Jane Roth, said Stratechuk claimed “the policy conveys a government sponsored message of disapproval and hostility towards religion (specifically Christianity) and deprives his children of the right to receive information and ideas.”

Robert Muise, an attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, which represented Stratechuk, said, “What’s happening in New Jersey is a growing trend … to remove religion from the public square. … We’re seeing a trend of hostility or animosity towards Christmas.”

Stratechuk and the school district disagreed about policies involving religion and public performances at school. The performance policy originally included no clause about religion; however, a 2005 revision said public performances must be consistent with the district’s overall religion policy. That policy states that religious music is allowed to be performed in grades 6-12 if it is not related to holiday celebrations and is related to the curriculum. No religious music is to be performed by students in grades K-5.

South Orange-Maplewood requested a dismissal of the suit and submitted its overall religion policy to the district court. Although Stratechuk countered that the submitted policy did not reflect the restrictions he was contesting, the district court dismissed the case.

The unanimous three-judge 3rd Circuit panel ruling reversed that decision. Roth said in the opinion, “At no time in the complaint does Stratechuk quote from the official [religion] policy or even mention it. Moreover, the [performance] policy Stratechuk describes is more restrictive than the one set forth in the publicly available materials.”

Calling the religion policy “extraneous evidence,” the 3rd Circuit said Stratechuk’s suit was based solely on the revised performance policy and the constitutionality debate should focus on the restrictions that it established. The judges returned the case to the district court.

“Because a categorical ban on exclusively religious music, enacted with the express purpose of sending a message of disapproval of religion, appears to state a claim under the First Amendment … we conclude that the complaint would have survived a motion to dismiss absent the consideration of the extraneous evidence,” the opinion said.

Ellen Bass, the attorney for the school district, said, “The decision of the Third Circuit was purely procedural; the court made no decision on the merits. It determined that the trial court erred in dismissing the case filed by the Stratechuks because the court below granted a motion to dismiss and in doing so considered matters extraneous to the pleadings.”

The decision also awarded the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit public-interest firm, the cost of the appellate process.

Muise said the school district must now file an answer to the original complaint. Once that happens, a date can be set for the arguments to begin in the district court.

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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