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Other views: Wausau school music restrictions misguided

3:14 PM, Oct. 9, 2013  |  Comments
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Ode to Joy, the chorale theme to the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, might be the greatest piece of music ever written. It is certainly one of the most historically and culturally important pieces in the world, one of Western music's greatest achievements.

It's also, by some definitions, religious music. The words to its final chorale movement were written by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, and they contain references to God and worship.

Does this mean the piece should not be taught in public schools or played by school orchestras? Of course not. Cutting "Ode to Joy" and the many, many other pieces of religiously themed art out of a public education would be to cut out a huge part of culture.

That is not quite what the Wausau School District has done with its new limitations on religious music, but it is dangerously close. The district's directive that school choir groups, including the nationally recognized Master Singers group at Wausau West High School, drastically limit religious music at December pageants is a heavy-handed, oblivious new requirement.

It is time to rethink and reverse an indefensible set of new restrictions.

There is a legitimate balance to be struck here. A public school district cannot be host to a purely Christmas pageant or privilege Christianity ahead of other belief systems. It can't - and shouldn't - design religious observances into the school curriculum or extracurricular activities that leave out minority religions.

There are good legal and moral reasons that public schools should not be allowed to exclude or denigrate religious minorities or, yes, those who do not practice a religion.

But there is no evidence that this is what the Wausau School District or Phil Buch, the Wausau West High School choir program director and Master Singers director, have been doing. And there is lots of evidence, in the form of the many responses Daily Herald Media has received from former students and community members, that Wausau's musical programs have provided a genuine educational balance of traditions that included various faiths and secular music alongside culturally and historically important works with Christian content.

What problem, then, was the school district trying to solve?

The issue has not come before the School Board yet and the conflict, at this point, appears to be between Buch and a review committee established within the district. That's a good thing; it means the unreasonable restrictions ought to be easy to reverse. Buch said he was offered three options:

? Maintain a 5-to-1 ratio of nonreligious to religious songs.

? Hold a December concert with no holiday music whatsoever, religious or not.

? Postpone all December concerts.

Buch, who has directed Wausau West's programs for more than 30 years, made the decision when faced with these options to disband the Master Singers. Without question, doing so was an act of protest. It happens to be one that worked. The Master Singers is a local institution that people care about, and suspending the group - along with a joint decision by the district's 15 elementary schools to cancel their winter concerts - has provoked a massive outcry from the public.

The public is right. These limitations are too drastic. It is time for the Wausau School District to work to undo the damage.

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