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OPINION - In defense of school holiday concerts

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  If your child plays the violin or piano, even as a beginner, they’ve played parts of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  The final movement, the Ode to Joy, is considered the finest music ever written. It is also the most recognizable piece of music the world over. And it is a religious piece, celebrating God’s creation of earth and man.

The words, added in 1907, have become one of the best known hymns of the Christian church.

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day! 

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee. 

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine. 

Mortals, join the mighty chorus, which the morning stars began;
Love divine is reigning o'er us, binding all within its span.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.

Yet according to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, this is no longer acceptable to be performed by a high school orchestra, or sung by a high school chorus. The music sings of the Judea-Christian God, and therefore can’t be tolerated.

Most of the music of Bach, Mozart, and Handel can’t be performed either. Their works are overwhelmingly religious. How can classical music be taught in our schools if the great composers are excluded?

That’s the path the anti-religious zealots are leading us down. They’ve threatened to sue the Wausau School District, and the district may cancel holiday concerts, rework the music that's performed, and disband musical groups while it considers its legal options.

Case law that favors the performance of this kind of music. The law is on the side of 'Hark The Herald Angels Sing'. Courts have already held that religious-themed classical music can be taught in public schools, so long as religious meaning is not taught and proselytizing does not take place. The same for teaching the Bible. It can be used as a historic document, not for religious lessons.

Separating religious context from many academic subjects quickly becomes a mockery. Just as classical music cannot be properly taught by excluding the masters, how can history be taught without the role of religion? The crusades, the dark ages, the tradition of common law, the writing of our Declaration of Independence cannot be properly comprehended without an understanding of religion. Religious sanitization of our public schools – and that’s exactly what the Freedom From Religion Foundation has in mind  -- is a bastardization of education.

We will find out more about the origin of this controversy today when Superintendent Kathleen Williams issues a statement. It's widely believed that an outside complaint, or the threat of a lawsuit, is what started this. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made threats to several school districts before. It's also possible that a misguided parent or community member sparked this, or that the school district is making its own misguided policy change. However, it's important that supporters of traditional holiday concerts and music education stand their ground. The school library will be next, pulling out books that students might choose to read on their own that have religious themes or undertones. Then they’ll start meddling with the curriculum.

Sometimes lawsuits are to be avoided because legal fights are expensive and the outcomes of court cases are uncertain. Yet sometimes you fight because it’s the right thing to do. This is one of those cases. Suppose someone sued the Wausau School District claiming that football was an inherently unsafe sport. The district would defend its athletic program. Band and chorus are just as important to other kids. It’s a part of the educational experience. The school district needs to stand up and fight for these students.

Chris Conley

Editor's note:  Good morning, since my original blog post it's been announced that the Wausau School District will be releasing a statement on this situation later today. They may also provide more information about the origin of this controversy. Parts of this blog have been re-written to reflect that more information on this story is pending. We will post further updates on-line and on-air at WSAU and wsau.com. 

Update 10/7 9:30a ---  Jerry Bader has reached out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison. They say they are NOT the origin of this specific complaint. The group says the last contact / complaint the FFRF had with the Wausau School District was in 2009. The group has filed multiple complaints with other districts about Christmas-themed content in public schools.

Update 10/7 1p ---  It is obvious that an anticipated statement from Wausau School Superintendent Kathleen Williams has been delayed. A response was expected this morning. Ms. Williams, responding to an email from WSAU morning host Seth Mela, has indicated a willingness to be interviewed once she gathered additional information about the matter.