Sunday, October 13, 2013

War on Christmas

The town of Wausau, Wisconsin is not known for much.  Wausau Paper company, the Eastbay headquarters, and that it was my place of residence this past summer are its only claims to fame.  Recently, however, Wausau East High School has been making headlines in localnational, and biased news outlets over what some are calling a "War on Christmas."

More Jingle Bells, less Silent Night
The issue at hand for this alleged "War on Christmas" is the religious content of music at the holiday concerts of the "Master Singers," Wausau East's elite singing group.  In past years, the Master Singers performed roughly a dozen holiday concerts throughout the local area, with a substantial amount of the songs having a religious theme.  This year, however, the school board received complaints about the content of the musical selections and decided to act.  The verdict the school board granted choir director Phil Buch three options.  Option one was for Buch to choose one religiously themed song for every five secular songs and continue with the holiday themed concert.  Option two was for the Master Singers to perform their holiday concert, but without holiday music.  Option three, which Buch chose, was to cancel the December concerts entirely.

The community did not respond well to the school board's ruling.  Even some school board members, such as Pat McKee, want the board to reverse their decision and allow choir directors to select their own music.  McKee cites numerous calls and letters that the school board has received in response to the decision, "99.9%" of which were written in outrage.  He puts the blame on school superintendent Kathleen Williams, who he claims has also not responded to questions regarding the origin of this conflict.  In defense of the ruling, school board president Michelle Shaeffer said that the goal of the ruling was not to eliminate all religious music from holiday concerts but instead prevent "too much" religious content in the program.  Shaefer also cited the religious pluralism that America prides itself on, and believes that it is within the school's best interest to respect that, despite the fact that the majority of Americans and Wausau residents are Christians.

Despite choir director Phil Buch admitting he is a "man of faith," he has been clear that his intention is not to promote religion over religion or religion over non-religion, but rather teach the students through the most relevant songs available.  While this issue primarily deals with songs about the Christian holiday of Christmas, Buch says that his choir does not limit itself to religious songs that are strictly Christian.  He says he has chosen Hebrew, Russian, Italian, and Canadian songs for his choir to sing, thus he believes he is not favoring Christianity.  Nevertheless, Buch still felt it was better to cancel the concerts than to elect option one of holding a holiday concert with one religious song per five secular songs.

This issue has not been brought to court and remains an internal issue for the school, though they are facing significant external pressure from parents.  The school board's ruling was certainly based on the Establishment Clause, though with a little creativity, perhaps parents could make a case that their children's free exercise was being compromised.  In this post, however, we will focus on whether the school board's ruling represents a proper interpretation of the Establishment Clause.

There are many aspects of this issue to consider when deciding whether the school board's actions were justified.  First and most significantly, this is a public school, funded by the state.  If Wausau East was a private school, this would not be an issue.  Second, the school board provided the choir with two legitimate options for acceptable ways to allow the winter concerts, which was certainly a compromise. The school board did not shut down the concerts, Buch shut down the concerts because he felt that was preferable to being required to perform five songs like "Jingle Bells" for every "Silent Night."  Third, the school board may have felt that the amount of Christian music was excessive, but it was likely done with proportion to the religious affiliation of the district, including minority representation.   Fourth, the National Association for Music Education says that limiting religious music in schools would be detrimental to the student's learning experiences since religious music represents a large portion of relevant music available.  The views of this association are significant because they oversee many American High School music programs.  The first two points support the school board's decision while the last two contradict it.  This issue is very complicated and no matter what action the court took, someone was going to be upset.  However, the school board showed that there is no constitutional right against being upset and took action that consequently upset the most people.  Was it the right action?

I believe that the school board was justified in their ruling to limit religious music at holiday concerts but I find their ruling to be too harsh.  Instead of one of every five songs, I would like to propose that no more than half of the songs chosen have a religious theme.  Additionally, I would add a rule that of the religious songs chosen, no more than half can be from any single tradition.  I find this solution to be rectify the complaints Buch had regarding his limited access to much of the relevant material for holiday concerts, while also preventing "too much" religious material and ensuring that minority traditions are represented.  A strict separationist approach of not allowing any religiously themed music would result in favoring non-religion over religion, but allowing all religiously themed music favors religion over non-religion.  The question at hand is now where the line should be drawn.  This is somewhat of an arbitrary task with no clear precedent, which is why this is such a difficult issue to resolve.

What do you think?  Did the school board get it right?  Did I get it right?  Was any action necessary?  Do you have a different solution?  Is this a "War on Christmas?"


Cori T said...

I do not necessarily think that choir song selections should be regulated in any way because I think that doing so just makes the government more entangled. If the school board is going to set a limit however, I agree with Dan that 1 in 5 is too harsh. Holiday songs, by definition are going to be more predominately religious than secular. If the concert is in fact going to be festive, then while I agree that more than one tradition should be present, limiting the number of religious songs goes against the theme.

Jennie M. said...

This is definitely a difficult situation because although neutrality is the ultimate goal in situations involving religion and the government, I do not necessarily think that a holiday themed concert is an event that requires religious neutrality. I do not think playing mainly religious, or even mainly Christian, music is establishment when the concert is put on to celebrate a holiday season that exists because of religious holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza. It sounds like the choir director was already making an effort to include a variety of traditions anyway.

I think Dan's plan sounds like a good compromise, but I agree with Cori that it might cause too much entanglement of church and state. In this case, I think I would let the choir director choose the songs played at the holiday themed concert.

Maggie S. said...

I would have let the choir director decide what's in the program. Realistically, a "holiday" concert isn't about winter in general--it's about holidays with religious content. And to some people, "the holidays" means Christmas but I would argue that it's not the conception of Christmas that would be establishing religion, but rather a commercial holiday that's more about Santa and reindeer than about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think allowing the Christmas songs is fine, maybe for good measure throw in a Hanukkah song (even though it starts a whole month before Christmas this year) and a Kwanza song if there are any. Bottom line, it's a holiday concert to celebrate holidays so if they're going to allow the concert, then they have to allow holiday music which by it's very nature is going to be religious.

Dylan Smith said...

I agree with pretty much all that has been said. A big point in cases involving religion in public schools that we have discussed so far, regards the reasoning behind the religious action. In Stone v. Graham the court ruled against the a Kentucky Statute that required the 10 Commandments to be posted on the wall of every classroom. This was the case because there was no secular legislative purpose in posting the 10 Commandments. Here Buch has specifically said that his purpose is not to promote a religion over another or over non religion but rather to educate through different musical styles. This is a completely valid and constitutional point. Even without considering the fact that holidays are traditionally religious, which the court often relies on, Buch should be allowed to choose his own songs.

Adam J said...

The holiday concert isn’t a concert for a secular holiday such as Independence Day. I believe the choir director was doing a fantastic job by incorporating different songs that expressed different nationalities and religions. The fact still remains that the holidays are religious in nature and therefore a holiday concert can in no way exclude religion. Any type of action that would intervene would create very unnecessary entanglement.