Excerpted from Tuesday's Los Angeles Times:
The Supreme Court missed an opportunity last week to tell skittish school administrators that not every reference to religion in school activities is a violation of the separation of church and state.
With Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissenting, the justices refused to rule on whether an Everett, Wash., school district violated the First Amendment when it prohibited a high school ensemble from playing an instrumental version of "Ave Maria" at a graduation ceremony.
It's customary at Henry M. Jackson High School for graduation ceremonies to include a musical piece selected by senior members of the wind ensemble. In 2006, the graduates chose an instrumental version of Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," but the school district vetoed the selection, holding that "musical selections for all graduations within the district should be purely secular in nature."
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the school board, holding that in banning "Ave Maria," the district was trying to avoid conflict with a clause in the First Amendment prohibiting the "establishment of religion."
"Ave Maria" — Latin for "Hail, Mary" — contains a familiar Christian prayer commemorating the way the angel Gabriel greeted Mary in the New Testament. But "Ave Maria" in its various versions is performed for musical as well as religious reasons. If it can be banned on a misguided reading of the First Amendment, so can other religiously themed classics — such as Handel's "Messiah."
The real problem with the 9th Circuit's ruling is that it equates any reference to religion with an act of worship. When the Supreme Court rightly outlawed official school prayers and devotional Bible readings, it did not banish all references to religion from the classroom or the school auditorium. For example, the Bible can be studied as literature, or in a comparative religion course along with other sacred texts.