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.