WAUSAU — Wausau School District leaders say they never prohibited the use of sacred music during holiday concerts, nor did they impose a ratio of secular to religious music for those performances.
“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 ... and in a manner that shows respect for the varied backgrounds and beliefs of all our students and families,” Wausau School District Superintendent Kathleen Williams said in a statement released Monday.
Those were the first public comments Williams has issued on the matter since Friday, when Daily Herald Media began reporting on a story about the district’s new music policy. Also on Monday, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project of The First Amendment Center told Daily Herald Media that the district was on the right track with the policy, though its approach in establishing a quota of religious and non-religious music was “heavy-handed.”
The controversy began Friday when Phil Buch, who has directed Wausau West High School choir programs since 1981, told Daily Herald Media that he had temporarily disbanded the school’s elite choir group, Master Singers, after a meeting with district officials. Buch said administrators gave district music educators three options for December concerts: choose five secular songs for each religious song performed; have no holiday music whatsoever, or postpone any concerts in December.
The statement released Monday contends that changes are part of a review of an administrative rule governing the use of religiously themed music in the district’s curriculum. The rule was put in place in 2001 and reviewed in 2010. As part of the process, a committee of teachers and administrators reviewed proposals submitted by music teachers for musical performances for the first semester of this school year.
Williams also said in the statement that elementary-school holiday concerts were postponed not because of their content but because students need to devote their time to preparing for and taking state and federally mandated tests.
Late last week, the committee reviewed the West’s Master Singers winter program, the statement said. This program involves Master Singers performing Christmas carols and seasonal songs at about 15 locations in the Wausau area.
“District legal counsel has advised that public school districts are generally prohibited from sponsoring Christmas caroling in connection with the religious celebration of Christmas. In response district administration made it clear that the district did not wish to cancel Master Singers winter program, and asked district legal counsel to provide constitutional alternatives,” Williams said in the statement.
One option included performing seasonal and Christmas selections that are not religious in nature. A second option included using a theme other than Christmas.
“It is important to note that no set ratio of religious songs versus non-religious songs was established as a part of the committee’s review,” Williams’ statement reads. “Rather, district legal counsel indicated that, if the format were changed to a new theme, it could be possible to include one religiously themed Christmas selection along with four other varied selections, which reflected themes from other religious, secular or cultural traditions. The point of this example was to emphasize the need to make a true change in the theme of the scheduled performances.”
Buch was not immediately available for comment Monday evening after the statement was released. On Friday, he told Daily Herald Media that those options were unacceptable.
“This group sings at Christmas programs,” he said. “We sing for nursing homes, grade schools, businesses. To do that without Christmas music doesn’t make sense.”
Efforts to reach Williams after the statement was released also were unsuccessful.
Elementary winter concerts have been rescheduled for the spring, Williams said in the statement, not because of religious music selections, but because of the time the concerts require from students while they prepare and take state and federally mandated standardized tests.
Expert weighs in
It would be improper for the Wausau School District or any public school to present a version of a Christmas caroling performance, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project of The First Amendment Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting the First Amendment and building understanding of its core freedoms.
“This is not a church choir,” Haynes said.
The Wausau School District is “on the right page” in scrutinizing the music its students perform in holiday concerts, Haynes said.
“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,” Haynes said.
Haynes said a five-to-one ratio of songs seems arbitrary. “I don’t think there is a formula for this. If you have a formula, it gets people’s back up. ... Schools shouldn’t be afraid of sacred music.”
Haynes said it likewise appeared that Buch overreacted by putting the Masters Singers on hiatus. “It has the feeling of taking my marbles and going home,’” he said.
The political landscape of church, state and public education can be a treacherous one, Haynes said, but it is one that can be explored and navigated. In the early 1990s as a consultant for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he banded with legal, religious, political and educational leaders to help schools find their way. That diverse group found that focusing on educational aspects of holiday music and steering away from the devotional aspects of performances made a more satisfying experience for everybody.
“There’s a lot of common ground on this stuff,” Haynes said. “It takes people in local communities sitting down together and working it out.”
Without that, a political fight is bound to occur.
“These things are always political,” Haynes said. “People see these issues as a symbolic fight. They ask, ‘Whose schools are these?’ Christians feel like they’ve lost so much, and see this as a taking away of the last vestige of something valuable to them in their schools, their faith, their country.”
Keith Uhlig can be reached at 715-845-0651. Find him on Twitter as @UhligK.