Wisconsin school district regains its Christmas spirit

Religious Liberty
by Sarah Padbury
Posted 10/16/13, 09:35 am

Students at Wausau West High School in Wisconsin cheered Monday as choir director Phil Buch resumed Christmas concert rehearsals after a debacle over the show’s “Christian” content. 

Buch temporarily disbanded his elite choir after the district superintendent asked him to remove or reduce the number of Christian songs from upcoming Christmas performances. In solidarity, 15 public elementary schools cancelled their Christmas concerts as well. Public outcry forced the school board to schedule an open session last Thursday with public comment to address the controversy. Dozens of parents, students, and former students signed up to speak to the board.

Before the audience was permitted to speak, school board Vice President Lance Trollop moved to allow all elementary school principals and their music teachers to decide individually whether they would hold Christmas concerts this year. The motion passed to a great applause, but that didn’t stop people from expressing their dismay with the administration.

One parent identified herself as a Christian and told the board she was offended the district uses the term “holiday concerts” rather than what they really are—Christmas concerts. Julie Burgess, a music teacher with three children attending school in the district, said sacred music is an integral part of choral history: “Excluding sacred music would mean that students would get an incomplete education.”

Many residents expressed alarm that the administration made such a big decision without consulting or informing the school board—let alone principals, music teachers, parents, or students. But Superintendent Kathleen Williams insisted she wasn’t being secretive. She said she was only following the advice of the district’s newly hired attorney.

But it appears the attorney offered the district poor counsel, since federal courts have consistently ruled that public school choirs may perform religiously themed music. Wausau native Michael Stokes Paulsen, a 30-year First Amendment attorney and law professor, wrote in the Wausau Daily Herald that “Nothing in the U.S. Constitution forbids or restricts the performance of such musical literature by public school choral or instrumental groups.”

The district also received a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom: “Federal courts have recognized that the vast majority of high-quality choral music is religious in nature. As a result, they have refused to second-guess music educators’ curricular choices and place numerical quotas on the religious pieces that school choirs may perform.”

In the end, board members voted to return to an older policy in which each school’s principal reviewed song lists of performances, rather than administrators, and pledged to create a new policy within the next year, with community input.

Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Sarah and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.

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