SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A 13-year-old student had her piano song choice rejected by a charter school on the grounds that the song was too religious. Once confronted, however, the school reversed its decision.
The song that the student wanted to perform was the popular Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” It was to be played as an instrumental piece for elderly people at a retirement home.
Originally written by Isaac Watts, the song includes words such as “Heaven” and “Savior.” South Sutter Charter School stated that it may offend other people, so they would not allow it to be played.
Julianne Benzel, the student’s mother, thought it was unbelievable that people could be offended by its being too religious. She felt her daughter’s freedom of speech was violated.
“The First Amendment … in my estimation, is the core of who we are as a nation,” said Benzel.
Benzel and her family reached out to Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) for help with the next steps. As a nonprofit legal defense organization, PJI focuses on civil liberties such as religious freedom and parental rights.
After a PJI attorney spoke to the school, the school reversed its decision and told the Benzel family that “Joy to the World” is nonsectarian. Oxford defines “nonsectarian” as “not involving or relating to a specific religious sect or political group.”
According to the school’s website, its speech policy states: “The School respects students’ rights to express ideas and opinions, take stands on issues, and support causes, even when such speech is controversial or unpopular.”
Benzel said her other daughter chose “Jingle Bells” as a piano piece, and this seemed to be acceptable because people of “all religion or no religion can enjoy it.”
An education specialist from the South Sutter Charter School suggested that “Jingle Bells” was a more secular choice, according to a PJI press release.
Benzel, who is running as a congressional candidate for CA-04, says this was the second time her family had faced a First Amendment violation in less than two years.
Brad Dacus, president of PJI, stated: “Any sense of harassment or censorship of a student because of their religious expression is a violation of the First Amendment free speech and free exercise clauses.”
“There’s nothing unconstitutional with a public school recognizing a national holiday like Christmas,” he said.
Dacus said that more than 90 percent of organizations tend to back off after being confronted.
He said there is a “stigma that public education has created. Against faith and against people of faith. We see this hostility growing [in] our college campuses as well as our public schools, and it’s permeating our society as a whole. … Even businesses are often now feeling afraid and intimidated in recognizing the Christmas holiday.”
Benzel said that the school may be influenced by or afraid of the state of California.
“[The] school is living under threat or fear of intimidation,” said Benzel.
She said that her family is just one family that has spoken up.
“How many other families have been under the same pressure … and slowly and surely giving away small little stands?” she said.
Conflict regarding what is deemed religious and what is not has been a sensitive issue, and many people may not know if their rights are affected.
Dacus focuses on providing resources and a voice for those who are in similar situations. He said there have been “students, like this girl, who otherwise would have had no place to go for legal protection.”