I’ve often had cause to repeat to myself George Eliot’s quip that “The clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers.” But I feel sure if Eliot (née Marian Evans) were alive today, she would have to cede that very few clergymen could be more irresponsible than Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.
O’Reilly practically crowed: “ What is interesting this year is that Hanukkah will be over on Thursday, so there are no more holidays between then and Christmas Day . . . bad day for the secular progressives.” Yet, he’s heard of the Winter Solstice, the real reason for the season, which, after all, takes place before Christmas on Dec. 21. He also ignores the tongue-in-cheek Festivus on Dec. 23.
“On the national front, there are three primary culprits seeking to diminish Christmas,” O’Reilly pontificated. We at FFRF are truly honored to be named among the top three “culprits.” In fact, O’Reilly singled out FFRF:
“The most aggressive is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which routinely threatens to sue small towns and school districts over Christmas situations if they are dare utter the word ‘Christmas’ or allow choirs to sing carols in the schools.
“They want to banish any mention of Jesus from the public square. They are the oppressors. . . . Why are we allowing anti-Christmas madness?”
O’Reilly then welcomed onto his show the equally irresponsible talker Doug Napier from the $36 million-a-year Religious Right legal operation, the Alliance Defending Freedom. Napier rattled off three cases where schools have banned music “based on misinformation” and blaming FFRF.
While Napier was pretty vague, he seemed to be talking about situations in Wausau, Wis., Rock Hill, S.C., and Bordentown, N.J. Let’s examine these cases one by one.
• Rock Hill, S.C.: Whatever controversy Napier was referring to didn’t involve FFRF. We haven’t sent out any letters there. Coincidentally, however, FFRF is poised to send out a strong letter over the egregious allegation that students in the marching band were routinely cajoled into a “prayer ring” by their music teacher at one of the local high schools. (Practicing, not praying, will produce better music and not violate student rights of conscience.)
• Wausau, Wis.: FFRF would dearly love to take credit for the decision by the school district this fall to limit religious music at holiday concerts. Actually, FFRF probably can claim credit, because we’ve tusseled with the school board there over previous violations, as was reported in the Wausau Daily Herald. In this instance, our involvement was limited to sending a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Oct. 10 on the eve of the board-initiated decision to limit religion in music classes, reminding the board that “religious music at district events has been problematic in the past” and thanking the board for taking proactive steps to “ensure an appropriate music curriculum that does not make religion its primary focus.” ADF contacted the board as well. The board is still formulating a long-term policy on religious music.
• Bordentown, N.J.: A superintendent properly announced that “Religious music should not be part of the elementary programs.” She’d heard complaints about elementary students having to learn and perform a program of devotional songs such as “We Sing Gloria,” “Bring a Torch,” “Los Reyes de Oriente” and “A Song for Hanukkah.” After a backlash led by Alliance Defending Freedom, the superintendent reversed her decision. Immediately, two additional religious songs, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Silent Night,” were added to the program.
FFRF was contacted by distressed parents at this point and wrote the district urging it to “stand firm against religious bullying.” FFRF Staff Attorney Seidel noted that the legality of a practice does not determine its wisdom: “Is the alienation of a single child worth whatever possible benefit there is in forcing children to sing religious songs? Or should we teach some of the countless musical alternatives that include all children, regardless of their religion or lack thereof?” It’s our hope that the superintendent will realize there are reasonable groups out there offering her support. Why not choose neutrality instead of divisiveness?
Seasonal music is one of the more difficult and nuanced public school violations FFRF deals with. Court precedent against school prayer is firm, but is mushier on religious music. FFRF, as the courts do, evaluates each complaint on its merits. It’s our firm conviction that, depending on the lyrics, degree of duress and ages of students, even one religious song may be too many.
I think back to one notorious complaint FFRF took about second graders in a small Wisconsin town being forced by their music teacher, who was also her church’s music teacher, to sing a song that repeated for about 24 choruses, “I’m going to sing when the Lord says sing.” Parents have a right and obligation to protect their 8-year-olds from in-school indoctrination. Such a violation is very different from inclusion of a classical religious chorale piece at the high school level for educational purposes. These cases are fact-dependent.
ADF’s Napier falsely claimed on O’Reilly’s show that courts have never ruled against religious music in schools. In one such case in 2009, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the superintendent of Everett School District No. 2 did not violate a Washington high school student ensemble’s rights in barring them from performing “Ave Maria” (Latin for “Hail Mary”) at graduation. The panel ruled this well-known piece is a Roman Catholic prayer set to music and that its performance at a public school graduation could well be seen as an endorsement of religion. Since this is about setting the record straight, I must point out that FFRF almost never “threatens to sue,” as O’Reilly claimed. First, we try to use reason and court precedent to resolve state/church entanglements.
Nor have we ever threatened to sue a school district for using the word Christmas. FFRF, unlike the Alliance Defending Freedom, doesn’t boast a $36 million annual budget, plus volunteer Religious Right attorneys from all 50 states lined up to help us. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nor do we seek to “banish Jesus.” We’ve never once complained about a nativity scene being where it belongs — on a church lawn. Well, I have to admit that now I’m exaggerating. I’ve frequently been heard to complain to any companion who will listen that I’ve never seen a nativity display on public or private ground that wasn’t perfectly hideous. Have you? In fact, if I were religious, I’d consider crèches downright blasphemous for their hideousness.
Distortions, gloating and putdowns notwithstanding, FFRF is highly flattered to be the subject of so much attention by so many “irresponsible talkers.”