Grinch: School Says Student Performance of “Joy to the World” Not Acceptable, Then Backtracks

Sacramento, CA—A school in Northern California has reversed course after initially declaring “Joy to the World” unacceptable for a student piano performance.

The Benzel family reached out to Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) after their 13-year-old daughter Brooklyn’s musical choice was rejected by her Education Specialist at South Sutter Charter School. The reason? The specialist, who oversees independent-study charter school students, said the classic carol was not acceptable because of its religious content. It was suggested that “Jingle Bells” should be performed instead because it is more secular.

At first, mom Julianne Benzel thought there must be some mistake. After all, “Joy to the World,” which celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, is one of the most iconic songs of the Christmas season. 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. For one thing, the piano performance would not actually include the lyrics of “Joy to the World”—it was purely instrumental. Moreover, the performance would not even take place at a school; it was to be performed at a retirement home for the enjoyment of elderly residents. A recording would then be submitted as part of Brooklyn’s independent-study portfolio.

The Benzel family contacted PJI. PJI’s attorney Matthew McReynolds first called and spoke with the school’s general counsel and then prepared a legal demand letter to highlight student free speech rights and the lack of justification for the school’s fears. Shortly after McReynolds spoke to their attorney, the school abruptly reversed course, telling the Benzels they had changed their position after determining that “Joy to the World” is “non-sectarian.”

“We’re thrilled that Brooklyn will now be able to bring joy to this retirement home with a timeless carol,” McReynolds commented. “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.”

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, commented, “Without fail, the grinches come out every year during the Christmas season to try to take away timeless traditions and censor our speech. PJI is committed to preserving our cherished freedoms as Americans, both at Christmas and throughout the year.”

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.” For good measure, the charter school also told the teacher that having a Christmas recital was problematic. They continue to vigorously defend those actions in court, calling them “legitimate business reasons” for rejecting the piano teacher.