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Wausau schools limit religious music

Elite West singing group put on hold

Oct. 4, 2013
 
Wausau West High School music instructor Phillip Buch conducts the Concert Chorale as it rehearses in December 2012. The chorale might not perform its holiday concert this year because of new school rules on religious music.
Wausau West High School music instructor Phillip Buch conducts the Concert Chorale as it rehearses in December 2012. The chorale might not perform its holiday concert this year because of new school rules on religious music. / Daily Herald Media file photo

Legal history

In 1978, Roger Florey, the father of an elementary school student, complained about the use of the hymn, “Silent Night,” in a Christmas program in Sioux Falls, S.D. An avowed atheist, Forey contended that the school’s performance violated the doctrine of separation of church and state. In December 1978, Florey’s motion for an injunction was denied. The case was appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in 1980 upheld the Sioux Falls school policy allowing religious songs for educational purposes.
In 1995, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene dismissed a lawsuit filed by a 15-year-old girl over Christian songs performed by her choir at Salt Lake City’s West High School. The teen, Rachel Bauchman, claimed the songs represented prayers and violated her constitutional rights. The court rejected Bauchman’s argument and said that music “has a purpose in education beyond the mere words or notes in conveying a mood, teaching cultures and history, and broadening understanding of arts and that the selection of the music had a primarily secular purpose of teaching music appreciation.”
Source: http://musiced.nafme.org/about/position-statements/sacred-music-in-schools/

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WAUSAU — A local 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.

Phil Buch, who has directed Wausau West High School’s choral programs since 1981, said the decision to halt rehearsals for the Master Singers was made after a meeting Thursday with district officials and Frank Sutherland, an attorney who represents the school district.

Buch said district administrators gave music educators at Wausau schools three options for December concerts, which typically contain a significant amount of religious music: choose five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed; hold a concert and have no holiday music whatsoever; or postpone any concerts in December. Because the 20-member Master Singers group is invited to sing at nearly a dozen holiday concerts each year, Buch said, those options were unacceptable.

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

Buch said the annual Wausau West music concert, held at The Grand theater each December, will go on but without the Master Singers.

District administrators did not return calls Friday seeking information about the rules, but Wausau School Board President Michelle Schaefer said the change in direction stems from legal concerns over the amount of religious music performed in the schools. The decision will not eliminate religious music altogether but will give teachers a better idea as to how much religious music is “too much,” Schaefer said.

“From a School Board perspective, we look for music that is balanced,” Schaefer said. “Yes, we are a predominantly Christian society, but we are also a society of many faiths, and we want to respect that.”

Wausau School Board member Patrick McKee said Friday that he wasn’t aware of any directive or new rules until a parent called him for more information about rumors that concerts had been canceled. McKee said he’s still on a “fact-finding mission.”

“I understand the need to keep the district protected in terms of not putting us in a position where we’re advocating a particular religious message,” he said. “I have a big problem with a particular group or groups trying to force our hand and making us make changes across the board because they’re offended.”

The 15 elementary schools in the Wausau School District have jointly decided to cancel all winter concerts. McKee said holiday songs sung by elementary school students such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” don’t have religious themes, and the schools canceling those concerts because of backlash concerns him.

“I have no problem keeping religion separate, but this is taking it way too far,” he said.

A change in procedure

Buch said music educators first were directed Aug. 28 to submit all music selections for the year to the district’s music coordinator, Marie Northup, principal at Maine Elementary School in Wausau. Northup did not return a phone call or email sent to the school Friday.

Days later, music educators met with Sutherland — who also wasn’t available for comment Friday — who gave his opinion on the law regarding religious music in the schools, Buch said. After a number of educators expressed concern that one person would make all music approval decisions, the district formed a committee of four teachers to make those decisions instead.

The committee met Sept. 26 and approved selections for the majority of school groups, but did not have time to consider Buch’s proposed selections for the Master Singers, Buch said. The chorale is an extracurricular activity that meets for 30 minutes before the start of the school day; more than 50 students auditioned for 20 positions on the choir this year.

“I know, after teaching this group for 31 years, that I need 10 weeks to get these kids ready, and right now, we don’t know what we’re approved to perform,” Buch said. “The window is closing. There is no point in rehearsing if we don’t know what we’ll be able to sing.”

Buch said he has never personally received any complaints about the amount of religious music his students perform, and said he chooses music on its merit, not on its religious message. Students who audition for Master Singers are “well aware” that the group performs a great deal of Christmas music, much of which has religious lyrics, Buch said.

“I am a man of faith, yes, but I am also a man of integrity,” Buch said. “I choose music that stands the test of time. We perform music for the beauty and the art of it.”

Finding balance

Buch said he is extremely upset with the district’s position, particularly because music with a sacred text comprises a substantial portion of music literature, especially in choral music.

The National Association for Music Education, the organization that oversees school music programs in the U.S., promotes the idea that the “study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education,” according to a statement on the group’s website. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum, according to NAME, would result in an incomplete educational experience.

Buch said he agrees with NAME’s position and said he strives to give students a challenging musical experience that incorporates all styles of music.

“We perform Hebrew songs, Italian songs, Russian songs, Canadian songs,” Buch said. “We run the gamut. To say I promote religion by the musical choices I make would not be a correct statement.”

So far, it is unclear how the district’s two middle schools will handle December concerts. Dan Larson, a music teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau, declined to comment, saying the school district had told him and other teachers to direct all inquiries about the music program to administrators.

Multiple messages left for Wausau School Superintendent Kathleen Williams on Friday were not returned.

Katie Hoffman contributed.

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