http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/essex/index.ssf?/base/news-6/1102486653316540.xml Despite pressure from residents and outside interest groups, the South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education stood by its policy banning Christmas carols from being played at instrumental holiday concerts this year. The board, which has been shoved in the national spotlight since the policy was clarified two weeks ago, issued a statement at its meeting Monday night reaffirming its stance. "We continue to support the restriction that music programs prepared or presented by student groups as an outcome of the curriculum shall not have a religious orientation or focus on religious holidays," said Brian F. O'Leary, board president. "Absent that restriction, a concert or performance could become an opportunity not to learn about a religious holiday or tradition, but to celebrate it." But parents, residents and students complained that the district's policy was a slap to the diversity on which residents in Maplewood and South Orange pride themselves. "Now that our two towns are more diverse than ever, it seems to me that policy 2270 denies it," said Shirlee Gross, a 51-year resident of Maplewood. "I suppose you realize that Columbia's students think the policy is silly, and thanks to media coverage, we have become the laughingstock of the country as well." Although the policy has been in place for more than a decade, it came under fire this year when the board said the ban also extends to musical renditions of Christmas carols or other songs referring to religious holidays or symbols. Even though the brass ensemble was allowed to play songs such as "Silent Night" or "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," in years past, the district decided this year to clarify the restrictions. "We expect that board policies be implemented in a consistent manner," said O'Leary. The board's decision has provoked heated debate within the community while drawing national attention as well. Assorted interest groups have sought out district parents in hopes of filing a lawsuit challenging the board of education. Demetrios Stratis, an attorney with Alliance Defense Fund, a group that has mounted numerous legal challenges against schools over religion, chastised the board. "People are tired of efforts to sanitize religious expression in the public schools. This policy against even instrumental Christmas music flies in the face of all common sense and is neither necessary nor constitutional," said Stratis. Ryan Dahn, a sophomore and member of the brass ensemble, said the group is now scrambling to find music for its concerts. "It's ridiculous that every piece we have to play has to be reviewed by a district lawyer," said Dahn. Not everyone, however, was critical of the district. Mark Brownstein, a Maplewood resident, said he resents ideologues who are parachuting into the district, threatening to bring lawsuits. "The passion of the opposition to the policy and the suggestion by some that there needs to be greater interjection of religion into the holiday concert heightens my suspicions that this is about something more than the crusade for educational freedom," he said. "I think the board has got it right." O'Leary compared the district's policy to others such as those in Livingston, Montclair, Cherry Hill and Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Superintendent Peter Horoschak once worked. The policy there also calls for music devoid of religious references at its concerts. Peggy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the district, said the policy, passed in 1980, is a nonissue. "This has been a very diverse community for so long, and so well- known for tolerance that these things got worked out a long time ago," said Caldwell. "By and large, it's accepted that this works."