A school in northern California has changed its tune and will allow a student to play "Joy to the World" on the piano.
13-year-old Brooklyn Benzel, a student at South Sutter Charter School in Placerville, wanted to play the song during a student piano performance for a nearby retirement home. A recording of the performance would then be submitted as part of Brooklyn's independent-study portfolio. However, the Benzel family's attorneys at Pacific Justice Institute say the child was initially told the song was too religious, and she was advised to perform "Jingle Bells" instead.
"We stepped in and said the courts have made it very clear that the government cannot censor student speech like this simply because of its religious content," reports Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). "That amounts to state hostility of religion and a violation of her free speech and free exercise rights."
At first, Brooklyn's mother, Julianne, thought there must be some mistake. In follow-up e-mails, though, school officials said they must "err on the side of caution" and pointed to words like "Savior" and "heaven" in the carol that they deemed problematic.
"The Benzels were floored," says Dacus. "For one thing, the piano performance would not actually include the lyrics of ‘Joy to the World,’ as it was purely instrumental."
The legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom helped the school see the situation sensibly.
"We're thrilled that Brooklyn will now be able to bring joy to this retirement home with a timeless carol," says PJI attorney Matthew McReynolds. "No student should be made to feel that their choice of a musical performance is unacceptable just because it has both religious and cultural significance."
Dacus adds that, without fail, the grinches come out every year during the Christmas season to try to take away timeless traditions and censor Christian speech.
PJI is currently suing another charter school operated by the same officials over similar concerns. In that case, the charter school rejected an application from a piano teacher to become an approved vendor because they thought the name of her studio—His Song Piano—was too religious. They also said she would need to tear out or cover up songs in her piano teaching songbooks like "Amazing Grace" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."
The Pacific Justice Institute has printed a free, downloadable book called Reclaim Your School to empower students, parents, teachers, and communities on all that they can do legally to express and live their faith in public schools.