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OPINION - Is there a problem with this high school play?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I blogged several times about the silliness over Christmas concerts in public schools. Last fall the Wausau School District touched off a controversy over religious-themed music that some music groups were going to perform.

To review: this problem was unnecessary. It's settled law that public school students can perform religious-themed music. Many classical pieces that are the most challenging to school musicians and singers are religious in nature. Courts have ruled that such works are a legitimate part of a music programs curriculum. So long as music isn't used to proselytize, its okay.

Now consider the off-Broadway play Godspell. Can it be performed by a public high school drama department?

It's the fall play for the D.C. Everest drama department. And I think its problematic.

In the play, Jesus teaches his disciples as told in the gospel according to Mathew. There is a baptism scene. Parables are told. The last supper in reenacted. Christ is crucified. (Although the plays biggest shortcoming the final curtain comes down before the resurrection.) This is fundamentally different than the holiday music issue for two reasons. Godspell does indeed proselytize. If you are a non-Christian, this play overtly presents new-testament Christian teachings and holds them up as the way to a virtuous life. Because Godspell is presented as a contemporary play, it fails the teaching-history standard that most courts have set up when reviewing separation of church-and-state cases. And because Godspell has pop (and, frankly, not very difficult songs) it can't be defended the same way religious classical music is. Mozart, Handel and Beethoven have stood the test of time in a way that a 1970s play hasn't.

I like Godspell. And a Broadway revival in 2011 has made the play more interesting. Some of the orchestrations are redone, including a re-working of the add-on song Beautiful City. The new staging presents the show in-the-round, which would be unusual for a high school production.

This is a religious piece. Its message is to evangelize. Some schools have dropped performances of Godspell because of threats of lawsuits; others have pressed ahead. What happens with the Center for Freedom from Religion gets a hold of this? Is the D.C. Everest School District willing to go to court to defend their drama department? Would they win?

Chris Conley
8.27.14