As their voices ring out at school concerts this December, few children will give a thought to the potential political implications of singing such favorites as ''Away in a Manger'' or ''Silent Night.''
But what for many Americans is the ''season to be jolly'' is for the nation's public schools increasingly ''the season to be very careful.'' Some call it the annual ''December Dilemma.'' The challenge facing public schools during the Christmas season is how to oblige the Constitution in keeping church and state separate while still carrying on the performance of music that is part of Western culture.
''It's like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object,'' says Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. ''This issue is perennial, but I think it's probably going to heat up this year more than ever.''
In Iowa City, Northwest Junior High choral director Larry Kelley does not have the pre-Christmas jitters about his students' coming ''winter'' assembly concert. But sitting in his small school office piled high with choral music and orchestra instruments, he readily admits he has some qualms about how the audience may react to the mix of secular and religious songs on the program.
He has reason for concern. A veteran teacher with 12 years in this school system and a conductor whose swing and jazz vocal groups have won statewide honors, Mr. Kelley says that over the last two years he's been asked more and more by the school administration to justify his choice of programs after concert performances. Usually a phone call or two to the superintendent's office prompts the request.
What might have triggered it in the beginning, he says, is the Christmas recording he made with four high school singing groups a few years ago in a local Roman Catholic church. The program included a number of carols and a setting of ''Ave Maria.''
''Maybe some people felt we overemphasized Christmas, and maybe we did,'' he says.
Kelley says he now feels as if he is living in a fishbowl. A citywide junior high concert put the issue into the open again recently, sparking a communitywide debate over the place of religious music in the curriculum. Religious music, including Joyce Eiler's ''Thy Will Be Done'' (a musical setting of the Lord's Prayer) and Kirby Shaw's ''Number One'' (a fundamentalist revival piece), accounted for about one-third of the program - not an unusually high proportion. But those two numbers prompted a few phone calls to local school board members, and spurred a strong letter of complaint to local choir directors from South East Junior High School Principal James E. Ferguson.
Mr. Ferguson said he found it difficult to understand why, with the vast repertoire of music available, it was necessary to include religious songs at all. He vowed that his school would not take part in any future concerts including such music. In an interview later, Ferguson modified that stand, saying that the issue is not religious music per se, but of ''appropriateness.'' His own school has performed many religious numbers by classical composers.
''I'm not sure that the Lord's Prayer is appropriate to sing in a public school,'' he says. ''But what I particularly object to is music that emphasizes the deity of Christ . . . where kids have to stand up and sing, often during four or five weeks of practice, 'Sinners, have you met Jesus yet?' or 'Jesus is number one.' I question whether that's appropriate in a tax-supported institution. You can't say that kids don't pay attention to the lyrics. They do.''
Ferguson says that he has received more than two dozen phone calls from citizens, and most of them support his position.
After the concert, many residents wrote letters to the editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Some complained that the concert's musical quality and degree of diversity was limited. But many strongly supported Kelley's stance on performing religious music. Several writers theorized about the devastating implications for art, literature, history, and the future of music itself if all pieces with religious texts were banned. One writer wrote: ''Art is art and ought not to be confused with that which inspires it - what we ought to ban is junk.''
For the most part, adults appear far more concerned about the issue than students, though students also can see the point. Angie Miller and Yukiko Shimosato, ninth graders at South East Junior High, say they thoroughly enjoyed singing all the numbers in the fall concert - particularly the ones to which some people objected.
''I think it's OK as long as they're not forcing us to think about or believe the lyrics,'' says Yukiko.
Some Iowa City residents see the critical issue as one of majority vs. minority rights and an attempted curb on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
''I don't see why Christian music, which is taken for granted in small town Iowa, has to be particularly singled out to go,'' says Jerry Bartichak, whose daughter sang in the concert. He says he and his wife enjoyed the ''balanced'' program. ''I don't think it would hurt anybody to be subjected to a little of it and learn about their heritage. Are we protecting the religious minority by prohibiting the Christian majority's expression of faith?''
The US Constitution's Bill of Rights focuses heavily on the rights of minorities. The First Amendment, which also guarantees freedom of speech, obliges Congress to ''make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.''
The issue has been brought to the forefront in many communities, partly by the growing clout of groups such as the Moral Majority, who deplore what they see as growing secularism and the loss of values in society. These groups would like to see religion more firmly entrenched in public school curriculum. Congress's efforts to reinstate voluntary prayer in the schools reflect that kind of concern. But the increased action on the conservative side also has triggered growing resistance from more moderate Christians, civil libertarians, non-Christians, and others.
Schools try to draw the line between a sound educational approach to teaching about religion in music, history, art, and literature courses and anything verging on indoctrination, school-sponsored prayer, or Bible readings, which are specifically barred by the US Supreme Court. But walking that fine line remains a major challenge for many school systems.
Some, sensitive to community criticism on the subject, have decided the best way is to avoid the subject altogether. Thus, at Christmas, some school systems try to keep religious songs, symbols, displays, and discussions to an minimum. If they have any observance of the holiday at all, they often venture nothing more daring than ''Jingle Bells.''
In some systems, such as in Iowa City, an annual fall administration message urges special sensitivity to student diversity. Holiday practices vary by individual buildings. Mr. Ferguson's school, for instance, used to indulge in the ''whole business'' of Christmas. His school has not observed the holiday in several years.
Other systems have tried to soften criticism by excusing any child who prefers not to take part in any holiday observance and by trying to broaden the discussion. Some, for instance, have included the songs and background of Hanuka in the classroom. But many leaders in the Jewish community point out that the two holidays are not comparable, and that they would prefer educational efforts focusing on the more important fall holidays of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.
The most recent legal guideline for school systems trying to chart a safe course in Christmas programming grew out of a case filed by a parent who was an atheist against the Sioux Falls, S.D., public school system. The US Supreme Court turned down the case, but an April 1980 ruling by a federal appellate court in St. Louis held that music, drama, literature, or art with a religious theme can be performed, discussed, or displayed if handled in a ''prudent and objective manner'' and if the holiday being observed has both a secular and a religious basis.
The American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued the case for the parent says the opinion may have encouraged some school systems to reinstate once-dropped Christmas programs. But he notes that since the decision, several Sioux Falls schools have scrapped Christmas observances and that others have toned down the religious content.
''I think even in losing the case, we scored a major victory just in terms of raising consciousness and making people think,'' says Denver-based ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar. ''I have no way of polling school systems, but I would bet overall that their Christmas programs are less religious now.''
Indeed, on grounds that the Sioux Falls decision was less than legally clear, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has circulated a legal memo outlining tighter boundaries to help its members ''stay out of trouble,'' as counsel Ivan Gluckman puts it. The memo suggests that the content of religious holiday programs should remain secular and that they include no religious or theological content such as that found in prayers, hymns, carols, and religious readings.
''It's a safer and easier set of guidelines to understand,'' explains Mr. Gluckman, who admits it is also less permissive. ''You can still sing 'Deck the Halls' but not 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.' ''
Many school systems now have written guidelines to help teachers and administrators get safely through the holiday season. But a number of systems are reluctant to put in writing what could make them vulnerable in court. One course of action suggested by the National Conference of Christians and Jews has widespread endorsement from school systems with firsthand experience in the Christmas controversy. They suggest involving parents, citizens, religious leaders, and school officials in gathering the legal facts and quietly exploring the policy options - preferably before any conflict arises.
''Somewhere there's a line between observing cultural and historical traditions and religious proselytizing,'' says school board association head Thomas Shannon, also a lawyer. ''It's a murky area, but generally if you involve parents and citizens in developing the guidelines, you'll find the line and stay within the boundaries.''
But some, like Edd Doerr, education relations director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, warn that the job is extremely tough.
''Can a bunch of kids sing 'O Come, All Ye Faithful?' which has a specific theological message?'' he asks. ''Can a public school which is uniquely pluralistic have a Christmas observance or should it be a 'midwinter' or 'holiday' one? No one really knows. It's a sticky, aggravating problem that continues to plague people, and there aren't any easy answers.''
In one sense, music presents a special challenge because some argue there is a difference between listening to it and performing it.
''It's one thing for a teacher to play a record as an illustration of our heritage in an academic sense and another to participate in the ceremony of singing it - that can get close to being devotional,'' says Charles Kniker, Iowa State University education professor and president of the Council on Religious Studies in Iowa Schools. ''The key thing is whether or not your're using the musical program as an educational or informational experience. The closer you get to a celebration aspect, the more you're in hot water.''
Some musicians, such as Gloria Kiester, an associate professor of music at St. Olaf College, have argued that there is no substitute for producing music in order to understand it.
''To sense the quiet reverence of a simple hymn or to experience the intricate interweaving of voices is to understand [it] muscially,'' she says.
One reasonably safe guideline for public schools trying to stay clear of any church-state controversy in music programming is to stick with quality. Very few listeners object to the sacred music of Bach, Handel, or Mozart, for instance. Most musicians insist it is the musical merit of a piece -- its structure, chord progression, and the difficulty of the socring, rather than the lyrics -- that should, and often does, govern its selection in the first place.
''I don't think anybody [choir director] thinks about whether choral music happens to be sacred or secular,'' says Gene Brooks, executive secretary of the American Choral Directors Association, who points out that banning all religious music from public schools would eliminate virtually everything written before the 20th cenury. ''Choral music just happens to have a text where orchestra and band music do not. . . .And I can't see Verdi's 'Requiem' being sung to 'la, la, la.'''
Some musicians say that the quality of a good deal of religious music, particularly that written in the 20th century with an eye to selling it to the churches, is not that high. They argue that quality rather than the religious theme may be at the nub of the controversy in Iowa City.
This city, settled originally by Irish and Germans, now has a metropoltan population of about 70,000. It is both Bible Belt country and a sophisticated university town. A visitor in one of its fast food restaurants is as apt to hear the rhythmic refrain,''Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee . . .'' as a love song in the background. That's how comfortable many people here are with a mix of sacred and secular songs.
Mr. Kelley concedes that none of the pieces in the fall concert program were masterpieces, but he insists that all had some musical merit. For a time he was concerned that the mixed response to the concert might lead the school district to ban religious music altogether.''I could never have lived with that,'' he says.Instead, the school administration has decided to put in writing an informal policy by which the choir director and the principal of each building will confer before any concert to be sure that the educational objectives of each piece are on target. While Kelley prefers that route to an outright ban on all religious music, he favors loose written guidelines. The administration's solution, in his view, smacks of censorship.''It's like teaching with one arm tied behind your back,'' he says. ''Everything will depend on how liberal or conservative the principal is and how scared he runs of phone calls. Sometimes three or four complaints can alter an entire curriculum . . . I think we occasionally need to assert majority rights.''Colleen Kirk, president of the American Choral Directors Association and a professor of music at Florida State University, agrees: ''If administrators begin to dictate what should be on school musical programs, I think it would be a dangerous precedent. Many administrators aren't well trained in any of the arts. If anybody's going to decide, I would hope it would be music teachers.''But Iowa City School Superintendent Dr. David Cronin says the teacher will still have the right of appeal. He says the solution is a good one.''No matter what you do, not everyone is going to be happy,'' he says. ''But I have a hunch a lot of people here will be happier knowing that more than one person is in on the decision and that a specific procedure is being followed.''Overall, there appears to be an attitude of confidence in Iowa City that a reasonable answer to the current musical dilemma can be found.''We're pretty broad-minded in this district as far as religion goes, and I'm 100 percent confident that this is going to be handled to everyone's satisfaction,'' says school board president Stanley Aldinger.''This has been a community in general where people do listen to each other, and I would hope this would be an occasion for sensitizing people,'' says Linda Kerber , a professor of history at the University of Iowa and a parent. ''I used to think this kind of issue should be permanently settled once and for all. Now I've come to think it's in the nature of things for people to have a periodic dialogue on what the separation of church and state really means and on where the line falls. Our Constitution is a living one and we're forced to look at it over and over again.''