Marshfield, Wisconsin Schools and Christmas Carols

No Christmas
(Photo : Public Domain Dedication / Edited by Kim Jones)
No Christmas

Updated: The Marshfield Wisconsin school board has reversed the decision to limit religious music at concerts. (Read the story)

According to the Marshfield, Wisconsin website, the city that had slightly less than 20,000 residents (in 2010) is considered the "Best Place to Live in Wisconsin and Eighth Best Place to Live in America." That sentiment may change after last week's announcement from school district administrators that all schools must "limit" the use/performance of any "religious" music.

The Marshfield News-Herald reported that the decision was made at a meeting Thursday between district officials and school district attorney Frank Sutherland due to "legal concerns over the amount of religious music performed in the schools." Wausau School Board President Michelle Schaefer said that the change "will not eliminate religious music altogether but will give teachers a better idea as to how much religious music is 'too much.'"

Apparently, in the eyes of the school district and their attorney, anything more than one religious song per every five secular songs is "too much" (and that includes Christmas carols that are not Santa-based). Phil Buch, who has directed Wausau West High School’s choral programs since 1981, shared that music educators were given three choices for their December performances:

  1. Perform five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed
  2. Perform no holiday music at all
  3. Postpone any December performances

The outcome? The high school’s elite Master Singers choir group will be disbanded temporarily and the Wausau elementary schools will no longer hold any holiday concerts over fear of back-lash for their normal performances of songs like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." The high school choir disbanding may seem severe, but as Buch explained, it's about more than one single "Holiday" performance because the 20-member Master Singers group is invited to sing at nearly a dozen holiday concerts each year. "This group sings at Christmas programs. We sing for nursing homes, grade schools, businesses. To do that without Christmas music doesn’t make sense."

Wausau School Board member Patrick McKee was unaware of the changes until a parent called him. He told the reporter, "I understand the need to keep the district protected in terms of not putting us in a position where we’re advocating a particular religious message." However, he didn't advocate the extreme view taken by administrators, as he added, "I have a big problem with a particular group or groups trying to force our hand and making us make changes across the board because they’re offended." He shared that he is on a "fact-finding mission" at this point, concluding his comments with, "I have no problem keeping religion separate, but this is taking it way too far."

"Too far" could be considered "putting it mildly" by some as the Master Singers group is a voluntary extracurricular activity rather than a mandated chorus class. The popular group, which saw more than 50 students audition for 20 positions this year, meets for 30 minutes before the start of the school day. According to Buch, the group doesn't focus on one religion, singing "Hebrew songs, Italian songs, Russian songs, Canadian songs." "I am a man of faith, yes, but I am also a man of integrity," he said. "I choose music that stands the test of time. We perform music for the beauty and the art of it."

The National Association for Music Education agrees with that feeling. The organization that oversees school music programs in the U.S. promotes the idea that "the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education." The group goes on to say, "The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience."

While the separation of church and state is a slippery slope, high school students who voluntarily try out for a music program, rehearse on their own time and perform Christmas concerts at nursing homes and businesses hardly seems to qualify as a violation of the First Amendment's "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Not allowing those students to sing Christmas carols like "Silent Night," "The First Noel" or "Angels We Have Heard on High" on their own time, does, however, appear to this writer to violate the second part of that same amendment, which bans "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" said religion.

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