Wausau school superintendent backs down in confused war on Christmas

Eric Owens | Editor

Despite the insistence by U.S. courts that the Establishment Clause does not generally prohibit religious-themed music in public school holiday programs, the director of an elite high school choir in Wisconsin says he was told that his choir must sing five secular songs for each religious song this year.

At a meeting in early October, officials from the Wausau School District including the district’s legal counsel, Frank Sutherland, told Wausau West High School choral programs director Phil Buch that the alternative was no religious music at all, reports the Wausau Daily Herald.

Buch responded to the ultimatum by disbanding the choir group, called the Master Singers—an extracurricular group that meets before school. The choir — which turned away 60 percent of students who wanted to join this year — sings at the school’s winter concert and in venues such as nursing homes and service club meetings.

“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,” the choir director told the Daily Herald. “There is no point in rehearsing if we don’t know what we’ll be able to sing.”

Since Buch disbanded the popular choir, a passionate and angry hue and cry has gone up in the normally placid community.

On Thursday night, hundreds of locals packed a special meeting called by the Wausau School Board. Many came to criticize the school district’s decision because they saw it as an assault on Christianity.

“I think it’s time to take a stand for the majority,” resident Bruce Trueblood told the board.

“Excluding sacred music would mean that students would get an incomplete education,” warned Julie Burgess, a music teacher in a nearby school district.

“The group is not a religious group,” said Adam Yarish, a college student who sang with the Master Singers in high school. “The singers were for hire. We caroled around the city. We’ve been around and been in demand for 30 years. People love the Master Singers.”

Much of the crowd’s ire focused on Kathleen Williams, the school district superintendent.

Williams explained her belief that a group of high school kids singing some Christmas carols is prohibited under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Caroling “is endorsing Christmas, which is a very religious holiday,” Williams declared, according to the Daily Herald. Her concern is that singing a Christmas song to old people at a nursing home violates the doctrine of separation of church and state.

She also asserted that she and other administrators did not propose any ratio of songs and never set out to outlaw Christian songs completely.

In light of the kerfuffle, the school board has pledged to institute a new policy for next year. It will ask community members to participate. In the meantime, the board voted to return to an old policy which allows school principals — as opposed to a committee of administrators and a lawyer — to approve the songs choirs will practice and sing.

The choir director and the superintendent are working on a compromise list of songs. The Masters Singers will start practicing again on Monday.

The Daily Herald obtained Buch’s original seven-song list that caused the hubbub. Three songs are not religious: “Jingle Bell Rock,” a holiday-themed rendition of “Getting in the Mood” and a hybrid of “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.” Another three are Christian in nature: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” The big finale was going to be a medley of a bunch of secular Christmas songs.

Federal courts have consistently ruled that school groups can learn and sing religious songs as long as no one feels compelled to sing them or listen to them.

In a 1992 case, Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court held that a clergy-led prayer at a public high school graduation violates the Establishment Clause, essentially because students have no real choice but to attend their own graduation ceremonies. Also, the audience is basically captive.

The best the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation can do in discussing the issue is to cite a 2009 appellate case holding that a school district superintendent did not violate a student ensemble’s rights by preventing a rendition of “Ave Maria” at a graduation. Again, the case turned on the captive audience. The court noted that a graduation is a unique event. The court specifically said that a mid-year concert involving a mixture of music — like, say, a choir’s winter concert — would be altogether different.

Similarly, in 1980 and 1995, federal appeals courts firmly rejected plaintiffs who sued because Christian-themed songs were sung by public-school choirs at holiday concerts.

Back in 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened the Wausau school district, by way of an angry letter, over a religious song that appeared in the Wausau West High graduation program. In the letter, the atheist organization cited Lee v. Weisman.

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