After Wausau School District Limits Religious Music at Holiday Concerts, Community Members Freak Out

Last Thursday, Wausau School District officials (in Wisconsin) sat down with their music directors to explain that their holiday concerts would have to be secular in nature. The choirs could sing Christian songs, but they’d have to sing a few secular ones, too, to balance it all out. If they couldn’t find a way to do that, the December concerts would have to be canceled.

And then all hell broke loose because those terms were unacceptable to everyone:

[Wausau West High School's] elite Master Singers choir group will temporarily disband and Wausau elementary schools will no longer hold holiday concerts as the result of a Wausau School District directive to limit religious music in December.

“This group [Master Singers] sings at Christmas programs,” [director Phil] Buch said. “We sing for nursing homes, grade schools, businesses. To do that without Christmas music doesn’t make sense.”

A Facebook group called “Wausau School District Cancels Christmas,” popped up, too, with a picture of the Grinch right in the profile:

Even a petition began lamenting against a “decision [that] appears to be unreasonable censorship, anti-intellectual, and an unwarranted attack on people of faith.”

You can understand why they’re upset, of course. How do you have a holiday concert without Christmas carols? And if you’re part of an elite choir, can you really have a strong classical repertoire that doesn’t include a large selection of religious-themed music?

But okay, let’s assume there’s a potential church/state separation issue here. Is it possible to distinguish between works that are purely devotional and works that are fundamental to musical literacy? Are the song lyrics promoting religion? Those questions and many others are worth asking.

Here’s a question for you: Would it be okay for a choir to sing a song called “Worthy to be Praised” (lyrics below) at a public high school graduation ceremony?

Ha, hallelujah, ha, hallelujah, 
You’re worthy to be praised. 
 
Ha, hallelujah, ha, hallelujah, 
You’re worthy to be praised. 
 
Lord, Lord I love You, 
Lord, Lord, I love You, 
You’re worthy to be praised. 
 
Lord, Lord, I love You, 
Lord, Lord, I love You, 
You’re worthy to be praised. 
 
Chorus 1: 

From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, 
You’re worthy to be praised 
 
For the rest of my days, I will give You praise, 
You’re worthy to be praised.

I think the obvious answer to that is a resounding, “No.” Too religious. No redeeming value at a graduation ceremony.

But there was a public school that did that a few years ago. What was the name of it…? I wish I could remem—oh right. Wausau West High School.

In response to that incident, district officials assured the Freedom From Religion Foundation that they would be more cautious and exercise better judgment in the future with regards to their musical selections, for graduation and for music classes.

But you wouldn’t know any of that if you just read the articles in the media, anything on that Facebook group’s page, or the petition.

It looks like the school board is taking that warning to heart this year and actively preventing such problems from occurring before it’s too late, and good for them. It’s important to note that context matters. Religious songs can be sung at public schools, but promotion of religion is illegal. If you’re only singing religious songs at your annual “Christmas concert,” what other conclusion would a rational person have other than “They love Jesus”?

That’s what seems to be happening, too:

Buch said district administrators gave music educators at Wausau schools three options for December concerts, which typically contain a significant amount of religious music

It’s not like there’s a shortage of secular music that offers educational value. Any halfway decent music director knows that. If it’s not a problem to find that music the rest of the year, it shouldn’t be hard to find secular music in December, either. By all means, throw in a few songs celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But if it’s mostly Jesus, it is problematic, and that’s what the school board is trying to prevent.

There’s a reason people in the community are flipping out over the new rules: They’re so accustomed to having their religious beliefs affirmed by the district that they can’t handle their privilege disappearing.

Yesterday afternoon, district administrators released this statement, confirming that they intend to follow the law and telling those who believe they’re trying to eliminate all vestiges of religion that they just don’t get it:

… it should be noted at the outset that at no time has the District prohibited the use of religiously-themed Christmas music in winter concerts or directed teachers to eliminate such music from the curriculum. Rather, District administration has taken steps to help ensure that religiously-themed music is incorporated into the curriculum and performances in a manner that satisfies legal and educational requirements.

They added that there’s “no set ratio of religious songs versus non-religious songs” despite what some of the irresponsible news articles have suggested (which is five secular songs for every one religious song).

By the way, people who actually know how the law works and have no connection to the district say the administrators are doing the right thing:

“I think the school district is on the right track, especially about how the programs should be educational, inclusive of a variety of kinds of music, and to be careful not to be overwhelmingly religious,” [director of the Religious Freedom Education Project of The First Amendment Center Charles] Haynes said.

… Haynes said it appears that Buch has overreacted in putting the Masters Singers on hiatus. “It has the feeling of taking my marbles and going home,’” he said.

Or Buch cutting off his nose to spite his face. There’s no reason his elite choir has to disband. They can sing all they want. They just can’t sing songs that are mostly devotional in nature. And if they’re singing in “nursing homes, grade schools, [and] businesses,” like Buch said, why would they have to sing religious music at all? I think the patients and little kids and corporate leaders would be thrilled to hear a trained group of excellent singers singing damn near anything. The concerts don’t have to be homages to Jesus and God.

None of that will matter to most of the Christians in the community, though. They plan to gather en masse at the next school board meeting on October 14.

I’m not sure what’s more cringe-worthy: The fact that so many Christians are mad at the elected school board members even though it was the hired administrators who made these decisions… or the fact that they’re saying we ought to listen to the experts in the music field as to what’s appropriate to teach students instead of the school board members, even though they argue the opposite when it comes to science curriculums.

(via Religion Clause — Thanks to Patrick for his help!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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