School Choir Sings Religious Songs

So, I’ve got my first legal question to answer for WWJTD.

 

Question:

Our children, Chris and Meg, are participating in a choir at school. All the songs in their upcoming recital are religious songs. I want to complain and raise a huge stink, get the media involved, and sue, but my wife, Lois, urges caution; she does not want undue negative attention focused on the kids. The kids don’t really want me to say anything, either, but they complain daily about how stupid the songs are. The bottom line, though, is that all of us really, really object to the kids being required to sing religious songs in choir. What should we do?

Peter

Answer:

Yep, this could be bad.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation says this is the single most frequent complaint they hear. It seems that school choir directors often come from church choirs, and forget that they need to separate the two. The problem is especially troublesome around Christmas and Easter.

It’s time for Peter and Lois to have a talk with the choir teacher. There are some facts they need to find out before complaining. They shouldn’t mention an objection to religious music right off the bat, but find out why religious music has been chosen.

  • Religious vs. educational value:If this choir is introducing the children to the giants of classical composition like Brahms and Handel, then remember that most of that music is religious, but has educational value as well. Unless the songs are being sung over and over for a recital, and only religious songs have been chosen, it is not unreasonable to expose music students to them. We want our children, especially those who are serious about music, to know music history. By necessity, that includes grand chorales with religious themes. It also includes music that is entirely secular. There should be a balance of the two.
  • Is the concert or recital intended for a religious holiday?  The name of the recital or performance may be a dead giveaway here. Christmas carols, especially, have religious content, but there are other holiday songs that are entirely secular. There is no reason why some of those songs can’t also be included – and should be included, if for no other reason than to underscore that the reason for the season isn’t just Jesus. If the purpose of the concert is to highlight songs of different religious traditions, then consider that indoctrination might not be happening. Five choruses of “Jingle Bells” is much less worrisome than five choruses of “O Holy Night.” Now, if the “Dreidel Song” and the Kwanzaa Song” are included, as is “Up on the Rooftop,” there’s probably a good mix of traditions that takes the concert out of being just religious in nature. If not, it’s necessary to demand that the school do better about teaching all traditions.

  • How old are the children singing? The ability of a second-grader to fight indoctrination and the ability of a high school senior to do so are completely different. Younger children tend not to complain on their own about the nature of music chosen, but older children who have been taught to stand up for their rights will get in the teacher’s face about things. Then again, shy older children who are terrified of drawing attention to themselves will stay silent. It’s more likely that an older child in choir will be singing music composed by the great classical masters, and therefore singing more religious-themed music for non-religious reasons.

  • What is the music teacher’s agenda? Is he or she proselytizing? Making inappropriate comments about being “saved” or “accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior”? Or is the teacher trying to be all things to all people, including some religious things because of the season but mostly focused on secular songs?

Now, once it is clearly established that the choir teacher is motivated by religion and not by education, or doesn’t care that children in his or her class come from backgrounds other than the teacher’s own religion, or is actively trying to indoctrinate and save little souls, it’s time to object.

My preferred approach is to object gently, at least at first. It may be that the teacher simply never imagined that there was any other worldview, or that there might be local families who object to her religion. If the response is embarrassment and apology, Lois and Peter have gotten their message across without making huge waves. Meg and Chris don’t have to worry about embarrassment because the teacher, dismayed at her own lack of forethought, will scramble to change the song selections.

Save stronger objections for teachers who respond dismissively, or who tell Peter and Lois that the teacher, not the students, are in charge of music selection. Peter and Lois can let the teacher know that if she is not responsive to their concerns, the next step will be to involve the administration. If the teacher resentfully complies at this point, mission accomplished. Lois and Peter should be vigilant for complaints by Chris and Meg that the teacher has singled them out and is retaliating against them, though.

If Peter and Lois make this stronger objection and the teacher is adamantly (or passive-aggressively) unresponsive, or is completely dismissive of their concerns, Lois and Peter need meet with the principal. The principal may be unresponsive, too, and if that is the case, go to the superintendent. If none of this gets the mission accomplished, it’s time to write the school board, and attend a meeting.

 

Here’s where the “counselor at law” part of my attorney’s license kicks in.

Meg and Chris will be at the center of this controversy. Their friends will know about it. The cool kids who are not their friends will know about it. The uncool kids who think their stand is awesome will know about it and want to be friends with them. Other teachers will know about it. The parents of their friends and not-friends will know about it. Chris and Meg need to know that Lois and Peter will give them all the counseling and support they can muster.

Peter and Lois’s kids may hate them, but it is their responsibility as secularists and parents to make sure that Meg and Chris get the best possible education, and if that means taking on the Harper Valley PTA, so be it.

Meg will be fine – she’s got a good head on her shoulders and is confident. however, Lois is worried that Chris, who is already shy and uncertain of himself, might become even more introverted and isolated if they make a big stink. Taking on the entire school over this might cause a problem for him.

If that means finding a therapist for the kids to complaint to, then Lois and Peter need to find such a therapist, even if they have to drive a ways to get to the appointments. In selecting a therapist, Peter and Lois should be certain that the therapist is atheist-friendly. If they don’t already know someone, hopefully they will be able to find a secular-friendly therapist at Recovering from Religion’s new Secular Therapist Project. If Lois and Peter live in my area, they’re in luck, because I just emailed four secular-friendly therapists I know, as well as one secular friendly psychiatrist, and asked them to sign up. It’s a new organization and resource.

 

There are legal resources, too.

Atheist-friendly lawyers like me won’t have any trouble at all writing a letter to the school telling them that their music selection violates the establishment clause of the US Constitution and violates separation of church and state. A letter may be all it takes. If it takes more, Lois and Peter may be concerned about how to pay for a lawsuit. If they win, as they should, their legal fees will be reimbursed b y the school. That’s great if they can afford to pay the lawyer along the way, but what if they can’t?

FFRFThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is awesome in their legal badassery. They take in these complaints and they contact violators and they get things done. If you aren’t already a member, join. It’s free. And then donate what you can to the legal fund. Lawyers aren’t free; we like to eat, have homes, and send our kids to college, even if we work for cool organizations like FFRF.

After you’ve gotten the “join” and the “donate” parts out of the way, it’s time to lodge a complaint. FFRF has an online form at http://ffrf.org/legal/report. Fill it out. Be prepared to answer follow-up questions.

Based on what I’ve seen, and I don’t work for them so don’t hold me to this, FFRF first sends a letter asking that the situation be remedied. It’s my understanding that FFRF can do this without identifying the child whose family is complaining. That’s what any lawyer would do, and essentially, getting FFRF involved is the same as getting a lawyer involved. If the parents report that nothing has changed, then suit is filed.

Lawyers can protect the identity of children who file lawsuits. Using names like “John Doe” or using initials are the customary ways. If the case proceeds to trial, though, the cat will be out of the bag. As parents, Lois and Peter need to be prepared for this. Chris and Meg should also be prepared for it, and willing to proceed.

I can’t stress enough how important a secular community is. A religious kid sticking up for her freedom of religion will have her church or mosque or temple behind her. If a situation has reached the point of litigation, there is no other way to resolve it, and everyone involved is emotional and determined.

A major weakness of the secular community is that we aren’t cohesive. It’s hard to have meetings of people based around what they don’t do. If Lois and Peter are the organizing types, now would be an excellent time to join or start a secularist club. Maybe they’re too caught up in the lawsuit, though. Their friend Cleveland can start the group, rally the secular troops, and let the community know that they won’t be intimidated. There are resources for this, too, like Meetup.com and even Facebook.

So, Lois and Peter, talk to that teacher. Take it all the way to court if necessary. You and your children have a right to be free from religion, and it’s up to you to make sure of that.

+++++++++++++

Got a legal question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. You can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

  • Rowan

    I’m assuming names have been changed? If not, why not just let their dog talk some sense into the teacher?

    • Baal

      I don’t understand your point Rowan. If you’re implying sicking the dog on the teacher, I’d ask you to avoid violent solutions. They don’t work well and it then becomes a question of the teacher being more afraid of you than the religionists.

      • John Horstman

        So… the names are all characters on Family Guy; Rowan was riffing on that.

      • VikingATX

        Brian is really a rather reasonable dog, at least until the 3rd or 4th gin and tonic. I don’t think he’d get violent. Stewie, the baby, on the other hand is the one you have to watch out for.

        (The names in the letter coincide with the names of characters on the TV show Family Guy…)

      • Brad

        :) The fake names that the family have been given are from the TV show “Family Guy”, who have a dog called Brian. Rowan was referencing the show, not inciting violence. That said, I think setting Stewie on her would be a far more worrying prospect :)

        I assume you don’t watch Family Guy; you should give it a go. I’m a massive fan.

  • http://gravityswings.wordpress.com Avery Thompson

    It’s also important when meeting with the teacher, principal, superintendent, etc. that the meeting be recorded somehow. That way, if it ever does come to a lawsuit, those recordings can be used as evidence.

  • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

    Between prayer in school, and choir issues… I’m sure FFRF has their hands full of these. Ah, the never ending struggles of separation of church and state and education and common sense… :P

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    First off, my name is also Peter, so I hope this doesn’t get confusing!

    I’m a classical music recording engineer, so I know something about choral music. I’ve worked with a local high school with a tremendous music program for about 20 years, so I also know something about school choir concerts. I’m also one of the most ferocious atheists you’re likely to encounter.

    And, on the face of it, this situation doesn’t particularly bother me. It may be that Chris and Meg’s choir director is, subtly or otherwise, proselytizing through his/her programming choices, but the mere fact that the music is religious is not enough to go on.

    Most choral music is religious! There’s a simple historical reason for that — professional choirs are expensive, and only the churches could spend that kind of money. Secular music, composed for the court or for public entertainment, was written for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, instrumental soloists, vocal soloists, and the opera. Even in the 21st century, most choral music is religious — again, that’s market-driven, because a lot of music is commissioned by churches, and is performed in churches by church choirs.

    The high school choir I work with performs several concerts each year, with a reasonable mixture of religious and secular music, in their concert hall. Each year they also perform a special program of exclusively religious music, in a big Catholic church — and even this doesn’t bother me! Music like, for example, the Mozart Te Deum or the Rachmaninov Bogoroditse Devo really needs to be performed (for the students’ experience) and heard (for the audience’s enjoyment) in large church acoustics — and all the altars and statuary form a suitable backdrop. How many people, either in the choir or in the audience, believe any of the words, is not directly related to performing them well.

    In the case described here, it would be helpful to have more details. If the choir director is having the kids sing masterworks, that sounds legit. If they are singing hymns, gospel, and general crap, that sounds like a problem.

    Of course we have to be vigilant that our public school teachers don’t try to sneak religious indoctrination into our schools — not in the music program, nor in sports, nor in science classes (à la John Freshwater), but on the other hand, religion is part of Western culture, and it does our children a disservice to be “allergic” to it.

    Having said all that, I think Anne’s advice is excellent! By all means, ask the FFRF to look into the matter. If there is no problem there, so much the better — but every school district needs to be on notice that there are nonreligious students in every classroom, and the schools will be held accountable for protecting their rights.

  • ottod

    Very nice debut, Anne.

    Although it’s probably not pertinent to this particular situation, I’d like to point out that that there is a range of contemporary and near-contemporary music with a religious bent, e. g. gospel and a lot of classical rock, that has no analog (that I know of) in other non-christian sects, but still has artistic value, and integrating this type of music may present a new set of thematic problems.

    • Nate Frein

      Ultimately I think this all falls under the initial response suggestions Anne made.

      Simply saying “we’re singing religious songs” doesn’t necessarily mean anything’s wrong. I expect a music teacher to expose their students to a broad range of music, including the examples you just cited.

      It’s the same hair we split when we make a distinction between a class or discussion on theology, and a bible class. The intent and delivery are different. The first is academic. The second is proselytizing.

  • http://tinygrainofrice.wordpress.com Kristycat

    Honestly, before making a stink, I’d strongly recommend listening to your kids. They’re the ones in the chorus; they’re the ones in the best position to judge if the teacher is crossing a line or not. Complaining about stupid songs is every chorus student’s right and privilege; it doesn’t necessarily mean they feel religion is being forced down their throats.

    As has been pointed out, historically, the churches got the best music. Similarly, for a winter-holiday themed concert, the meat of the performance is gonna be religious-themed carols, because that’s where the best music is. Believe me, as a non-Christian, I do find it frustrating that atheists like y’all and Pagans like me have yet to write a solstice song to rival, say, “O Holy Night,” but the ecstatic music-lover in me admits that it’s emotionally and musically awesome, so I sing it anyway because it deserves to be sung whether I agree with the message or not.

    Is all religious music like this? No! But that’s why taking your kids’ lead on this – as the people in the best position to judge – is important. They’re the ones best suited to determine whether the songs chosen are musically good enough to be included on their own merits (and whether other songs are featured too) or whether the teacher/director is blatantly proselytizing.


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