sacred music police

Rpreface: I have spent 11 of my 25 years in this profession as a president or president-elect of a state ACDA or NAfME organization. All that means is that I have been in a position to hear what’s going on in schools across northern New England and beyond. I have long since lost count of how many times I have heard of colleagues being coerced or flat out bullied by administrators, school boards and communities to alter what they program for music. Most of the time, it’s been due to religious text issues. What follows is part personal venting, part professional setting of the record straight. This is intentionally being written at the start of a new school year so colleagues can get their ducks in a row as they consider their programming for the months ahead.

Ignorance is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified”. That is an apt description of the sacred music police virtually every time I have seen them in action in my career. They don’t mean to be, they simply are. It’s our job to educate them when confronted. It’s also our job to educate our communities, who may not likewise approach us but still have lingering (and often legitimate) questions and concerns around what appears at first glance to be a murky issue. Sometime around the early 1990s if I recall correctly, ACDA passed along a very significant letter written by Jay Alan Sekulow, Chief Counsel at the time for the American Center for Law and Justice. This letter was sent to each and every one of the 14,766 school Superintendents in the United States. Twenty years later, it’s as if no one ever read it! Let’s shed some light on the role of sacred and Christmas music in our schools for all the sacred music police out there, SHALL WE??? The blue text is directly from Sekulow’s letter.

Removal of religious texts: There is not a law or ruling in our country that has ever upheld this action! In School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963), the Supreme Court said, “It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” I’ll go one step further. Cited with direct statements by Faith D. Kaparian in the Duke Law Journal, “…in Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District (1995), the Fifth Circuit found a public school choir’s designation of John Rutter’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You as the choir’s theme song to be constitutional. Citing the choir director’s opinion that The Lord Bless You and Keep You is useful in teaching students to sight-read and to sing without instrumental accompaniment, the court stated that there was a legitimate secular purpose in maintaining the song as theme song. The court found that labeling it as theme song did not effectively endorse religion because of the predominance of sacred music within the repertoire of choral music. The court also stated that singing the theme song was not a religious exercise and it rejected the relevance of the fact that students would identify their choir by the theme song because of the crucial point that in the world of choral music, ‘singing about religion is not the same as endorsing or exercising religion.’ Since singing the theme song was not a ‘religious exercise,’ the court determined there was no excessive entanglement with religion.”

And mind you, this wasn’t over just the mere inclusion of a song with a sacred text, it was over allowing a sacred choral selection to be publicly performed as a theme song!

If an administrator says you cannot perform music because it has a religious text, tell them that unless they know of a court ruling you’re unaware of, they are putting you in a position you cannot contractually, legally or ethically be put in; administrators do not have jurisdiction to circumvent the law, and they do NOT have the authority to ask you to!

Balance of sacred and secular texts: Determining “what is a balanced program” is not a subjective endeavor. It’s based in fact. Courts of law have established that 60% to 75% of all choral music has a sacred text. That’s not a subjective opinion. If the sacred music police want “balance”, then that’s the ratio they deserve! A 50/50 split is less representative, so do NOT get pressured to give it! I choose to achieve a 50/50 split for my concerts and that works well for me, but the concerts where I program more sacred than secular? Go ahead, call me on it!!!

Christmas Carols: Our country has a heritage of carol singing. Period. Singing music that either reflects or is part of that heritage has legitimate historical and educational relevance. …no court has ever banned the singing of religious Christmas carols by public school choirs. The only court ever to address the issue upheld the singing of religious Christmas carols in public schools. The Florey v. Sioux Falls School Dist., 619 F.2d 1311 (8th Cir. 1980), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit said that the study and performance is the “advancement of the student’s knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage, as well as the Provision of an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience. 619 F.2d at 1314.0. The federal appeals court in Florey found that the religious songs and symbols can be used in public schools if they are presented in a “prudent and objective manner and only as part of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday.” 619 F.2d at1317. This court decision was based on two U.S. Supreme  Court decisions that permit the study of the Bible in public schools. In Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980), the Supreme Court said, “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion or the like.” Therefore, it would be constitutional for a public school teacher to have students study the Biblical passages that relate to Christmas (e.g., Matthew 1:18-2:22 and Luke 2:1-20) if the purpose was to study the historical or literary significance of the passages. Of course, any student that had ideological or religious objections to reading the Bible should be excused from the assignment. 

Balance of religions: this is the one that makes my blood boil. “You should have Christmas AND Hanukkah AND Kwanza AND…”. Let me get this straight: you lost on the argument that religious texts shouldn’t be included at all, so now you want me to program music OVERTLY BECAUSE OF ITS SACRED TEXT? You didn’t want Christmas music in my concert but now realize you’re not allowed to outlaw it, so now you want me to program other sacred music BECAUSE of the specific religion it represents? That would end up making me guilty of exactly what you were trying to accuse me of in the first place!!!! How does the saying go, sometimes it’s better to not say anything at all and risk the appearance of ignorance than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?!!! And by the way, the cultural heritage of the Hebrew tradition for instance is soloistic, not choral. I thought it was my job to program representative choral pieces, and not solo pieces poorly (but popularly!) arranged for choirs? I have a variety of Hebrew choral selections that makes the rounds on my 5 or 6 year rotations, and they do so because they are great pieces of choral literature, NOT because they merely have a Hebrew text. DUH!!!!!

Okay, but just don’t call it a Christmas ConcertIt should be remembered that School officials must take into account the free speech rights of students, as well as the districts obligations under the Establishment Clause. For example, students have the free speech rights to distribute Christmas cards or religios tracts on the “true meaning of Christmas” to their fellow students, or to wish them a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Hanukkah.” A school district could not constitutionally prohibit those activities… school districts are under no constitutional obligation to rename “Christmas Vacation” as “Winter Vacation” or some similar name. The Supreme Court itself has acknowledged with approval that Congress gives federal employees a paid holiday on December 25 and Congress calls it, “Christmas”. See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 688, 6754, 680, (1984).

The problem with Music Education in this country is simply people’s perception of what Music Education is… or more to the point, “what it should be” in their minds. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have made well intentioned (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here) inquiries into this realm and have been swept aside by, of all things, the law.

Wow. Gee. Go figure.

What a concept.

There are legitimate questions often raised in a respectful manner, and there are always concerns around these types of issues. Embrace them! I have made it a life goal of mine to see that, after a period of time, there is absolutely no misunderstanding of what music education entails in the communities I teach in. With regard to sacred literature, even Christmas music, we are either leaders in our communities when it comes to informing what schools are legally allowed to do or we bow to the sacred music police in all their forms and feed their ignorance. Choose wisely. You and your students are going to have to live with the consequences.

For those of you wanting very detailed, specific cases and legal statements: THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF TEACHING AND PERFORMING SACRED CHORAL MUSIC IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

 by Faith D. Kaparian, Duke Law Journal.


This entry was posted in Advocacy, Etcetera, Programming, Rehearsal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to sacred music police

  1. Chris Keene says:

    Spectacular, Rob. Simply specatacular. Thank you so much for including the links at the bottom, this blog post should be highlighted on the ACDA and NAfME national sites as a first place to send administrators and parents with questions about the issue.

  2. Dean Paquette says:

    Wow, This is awesome. Cathy and I have come up against this many times over the years. Only wish I had this info earlier. All beginner teachers should have this ready to educate the public.

  3. Jay D. Nelson says:

    Thanks for sharing this Rob! I have used several of the same sources in my struggles with the “sacred music police” in PI over the years. This situation has not reared it’s ugly head for a few years now but I definitely will disseminate this information if it ever does again. In fact, I will be bringing this to our District 7 Fall Meeting this Tuesday (if it’s okay with you!) so all of our County music educators have this ammo in our arsenals.

  4. Gina Provenzano says:

    Being at a Catholic School I do not have these issues. It is nice to be allowed to perform many beautiful pieces and there are many beutiful Christmas tunes. Great article Rob.

  5. RSU26MUSIC says:

    Thanks for the article. Very useful and will share with my student teachers.

  6. Lonnie Wescott says:

    Some wonderful stuff here, and I’ve re-read this again before school this year. The only thing I would add is, when armed with all this great information, the young music teacher should remember the greater relationship with one’s principal (or parent, or school board member…) when blowing them out of the water for their lack of knowledge on this subject.
    You gotta’ work with them the rest of the year, too. I don’t kowtow to anyone when picking literature, but I pick my battles, too. 🙂
    Have a great year, everyone!

    • mllama4 says:

      My “personal venting”, unfortunately, comes across louder and clearer than, “make sure you share this information respectfully and responsibly” 🙂 Thank you for the feedback Lonnie!!!

  7. Susan Winterhoff says:

    There is a HUGE storm over this in Wausau, Wisconsin right now….check it out online: Wausau Daily Herald. It’s being made into one issue, but there is really two. The banning of religious christmas songs at the elementary schools ( or the option of choosing FIVE secular for every religious Christmas song). Schools are choosing to cancel their Christmas/Holiday concerts all together. There is a smaller elite high school choral group that sings many small concerts around town for nursing homes, schools, businesses, and they have an appropriate for the season Christmas repetoire….they are for the moment disbanded because of this new rule. The focus has been on a lauded and highly respected high school choral director and his choral program at West High named Phil Buch. The other issue I feel is separate, is the amount of sacred choral ( “religious”) being sung by the high school choirs…your article covers that subject very well. There is a LOT of ignorance on the subject. The news of it is spreading…so nice to read your informed and educated article on this…wish the local paper would print it!

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