We’ve seen this play before haven’t we? Wausau’s school district decides that there is way too much Christmas music during "holiday concerts" and issues a directive "to limit religious music in December." Too much Handel, Bach, Mozart for Wausau, apparently.
But this edict seems especially petty and, not surprisingly, there is considerable push back. The district's elite and very popular Master Singers choir decided to temporarily disband rather than comply with the religious cleansing order and a Facebook-based petition campaign to reverse the decision has caught fire.
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."
The "too much religious music" edict apparently has the support of at least one school board member, who appears to drink deep from the cup of"diversity."
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."
That "respect" has resulted the shut-down of all of the holiday concerts in the city’s elementary schools.
The 15 elementary schools in the Wausau School District have jointly decided to cancel all winter concerts.[School Board member Patrick] 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.
What about the legal concerns the district is citing? Here’s the puzzling part… because there really don't seem to be any valid ones. The Daily Herald cites some of the legal history from the National Association of Music Educators:
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."
"We the undersigned disagree with the recent Wausau School District decision to create a quota regarding music (Wausau Daily Herald online news—10/4/14: "5 secular songs to every sacred song" used in Wausau school’s music departments and/or concerts). This decision appears to be unreasonable censorship, anti-intellectual, and an unwarranted attack on people of faith.
"The history of education has always sided against censorship. We want our children to be exposed to the world’s great music—and an inordinate amount of that music is sacred. Wise education embraces this truth and celebrates it: rather than seeking censorship and revisionist history. In addition, this decision appears to undermine one of Wausau’s greatest treasures: a music department and tradition that is outstanding. We respectfully ask that you suspend this decision immediately and reconsider it at an open forum where our community’s wishes can be heard and followed."
Some of the comments on the Facebook page capture the reaction in Wausau:
As a former student of Wausau West I am appalled at what the school board has nit-picked through the years. It seems as if though the school board is always looking in all the wrong areas when it comes to improvement. Maybe the school should focus more on their staff capturing the attention of students and inspiring them to further their education, instead of stifling enriching activities.
The only reason that Christian songs apear is because they were composed by the great! Handl, Bach, Mozart and many more. The fact is that these songs were composed in a time era when the church had control over everything. So of course the songs will be about God and Jesus. It’s called history. Those peices are what music really is. Take them for what the musical aspect is. That's what Mr. Buch does.
As a student of his I have never once felt religion pushed on me. It sickens me that people such as yourself are singling him out for doing the best job that he can do.
As a former master singer my heart is broken. Master Singers is a community treasure. Mr Buch should be commended for his stand. Thank you Mr Buch for my experience and the lessons I learned. Not just the music, but the respect of ALL cultures and religions.
This whole thing makes my heart sad. We are one small step away from book burnings. People need to seriously think about what tolerance really means.
We shall not discriminate anyone based on religion" my @$$.