Religious Music in Public Schools

It is a principle of our public educational system that every activity in a public school ought to have an educational purpose. The line is crossed when that purpose becomes devotional, proselytizing or religiously-coercive.

What to Look For

  1. Is the religious song or music in question chosen for its educational value or its religious content?
  2. What are the ages of the children studying this music (e.g., is this music class in kindergarten or optional honors chorus in high school?).
  3. Is there an educational value to the song (e.g., are students being introduced to Brahms, Hayden, Verdi, or is this a devotional Sunday school song?).
  4. Is the song in question sung only once or twice in class, or is it drilled daily or studied for public performance? An incidental use of music you find questionable that is in the District’s accepted music text is very different than a song used in concert that is practiced frequently.
  5. Does the school district schedule public concerts only for Christmas and Easter. Does it use religious holiday titles?
  6. At public concerts, are the majority of songs religious? While Irving Berlin’s song, “White Christmas,” is considered secular by the courts, it hardly balances out a concert otherwise containing only Christmas carols (hymns). Many Christmas carols are strongly theological, especially in the second and third verses. Nine Christmas songs and one “Dreidel Song” does not a balanced concert make. There should be diversity, other cultures represented, something non-holy-day/non-Hanukah related! As a student or parent, you can demand better and help educate.
  7. Are there religious symbols used at concerts? Is this performance in a devotional setting? Are student bands, orchestras or choruses being inappropriately recruited by public school employees to “volunteer” for nativity pageants, concerts in religious settings or to sing with church choirs?
  8. Is the music teacher, band leader or choral director making statements that actively promote religion, rather than instruction helping to promote music comprehension and mastery?

Generally speaking, thoughtful courts looking at religious music in public schools consider age of children; proportion of religious songs sung compared to secular; context (classroom or concert). Is the religious music at a ceremony or event that children must attend, or would wish to partake in, such as a graduation ceremony?

Deciding whether songs with deeper historic and academic merit cross that line between music education and an exploitation of a captive audience depends largely on context and circumstances. If a curriculum is balanced, the inclusion of some classical sacred music in an educational context may not convey endorsement. If school chorus curricula or performances routinely feature only sacred music, that is suspect.

In September 2009, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the superintendent of Everett School District No. 2 did not violate a high school student ensemble’s rights in barring them from performing “Ave Maria” (translation: “Hail Mary”) at graduation. The well-known piece is a Roman Catholic prayer set to music, whose featured presence at a public school graduation could well be seen as an endorsement of religious dogma by the district, the panel ruled. The district distinguished between the unique setting of graduation, and mid-year concerts at which a variety of musical works are performed. Judge Richard Tallman, for the court, confined his analysis “to the narrow conclusion that when there is a captive audience at a graduation ceremony, which spans a finite amount of time, and during which the demand for equal time is so great that comparable nonreligious musical works might not be presented, it is reasonable for a school official to prohibit the performance of an obviously religious piece. (Nurre v. Whitehead, 07-35867)

See also: Music with a Sacred Text, The National Association for Music Education. This organization, which used to be more forthright in its advice, takes some potshots at atheists and state/church separatists on its website now, but valuable advice can still be found there.

The New York State School Music Association lists these guidelines for selecting repertoire:

  1. Music chosen should be high-quality literature that has clear educational value: musical, historical, and cultural.
  2. Selection of music should be based on the developmental level of the students and the overall curriculum goals of the music program.
  3. Music should be appropriate for performance.
  4. Music should be reflective of and enhance student awareness and appreciation of various cultures.
  5. Teachers should present the music in a sensitive manner, emphasizing the educational and multicultural value of the music, rather than any religious/seasonal aspect.

Common Complaints

Judging from complaints to the Foundation over inappropriate treatment of music in public schools, a fair number of public school music teachers seem to come from the ranks of music directors in local churches and choirs, and have difficulty separating the two duties! The Foundation has handled such complaints as a music teacher in small-town Wisconsin forcing small children to daily sing a repetitive song with multiple verses, all ending in “I’m Going to Sing When the Lord Says Sing!” In a case like that, even one song as part of an over-all curriculum crosses the line. We once took a complaint where overtly Christian words were superimposed by an extremely ignorant public school teacher in middle school upon Beethoven’s “The Ode to Joy,” with Deistic, but pagan lyrics by Freiderich Schiller. Such misuse of music class time is not only wrong, it is anti-educational! The Foundation has taken complaints in which chorus directors booked students to perform concerts to entertain parishioners with Christian music in churches!

Nasty discrimination has developed when public schools schedule religious music, and cruelly expect students either to forfeit experience or credits if their conscience does not permit them to perform devotional music. Read the experience of one young state/church litigant, Rachel Bauchman, a 17-year-old senior in a school in Salt Lake City in 1996 taking music honors. When she and her family politely objected at every level of her public school system in Salt Lake City, Utah, to pervasive religion in her choir class and related activities, she received “threats, accusations, rumors, religious slurs [on] an everyday occurrence, . . . I was told to go back to Israel, called a Dirty Jew, Jew bitch, and informed that it was too bad Hitler didn’t finish ‘the job.’ My motives, personality, physical appearance, religious beliefs, citizenship status, my parents, you name it, were discussed, debated and bandied about on radio talk shows, on television newscasts, and in newspaper articles.” Read more about her case.

One of the first violations halted when the Freedom From Religion Foundation was founded in the late 1970s, was the illegal organizing and funding by the public school district in Madison, Wis., of the concerts at an annual nativity pageant taking over the State Capitol. After the Foundation’s complaints on behalf of students in the public schools, a local club took over the expense. But as late as the past decade, the Foundation had to step in to defend the rights of nonChristian student musicians who were still being pressured into playing for the nativity concert. We don’t want to return to those bad old days when it was commonplace in public schools for Jewish and nonChristian students to be basically placed in detention and stigmatized if they did not participate in the annual “Christmas” concerts.

There is a lot of good music in the world and it isn’t all religious! (And, incidentally, much oft-performed classical music was written by nonbelievers, and dominates classical choral music simply because church leaders were the only ones with the money to commission music from great composers. Nonreligious composers who have written religious music include VerdiBrahmsBizetBerliozDebussyDelius and Faure). And many other composers were not devoutly religious or were Deists, such as BeethovenTchaikovsky, or Mozart. More contemporary great composers who were not religious include Scott Joplin (teach him during Black History Month), Copland, and such songwriters as Gershwin and yes, Irving Berlin (a nonbeliever who wrote “God Bless America”).

The Foundation has seen an increase in complaints that “gospel choirs” are being organized officially in the schools, and over the gratuitous use of gospel music during Black History Month–as if African Americans all and only sing spirituals. There can be an educational and historical component to learning about the tradition and coded language of spirituals, so long as specific pieces are carefully chosen. (We dealt with one complaint in which small children were forced to sing a short spiritual that iterated the phrase, “God’s going to build up Zion’s wall,” 24 times! A different song and one more comprehensible to small children, should have been chosen.) But it does a disservice to black music–jazz, ragtime, blues, rock n roll, rap, etc.–for school district music teachers and directors to treat spirituals as the only musical tradition and contribution of African-Americans!

Common Remedies

A conscientious teacher or music curriculum department can readily set up a curriculum that respects all students, and avoids sending a proselytizing message. Appropriate lyric variations for songs for small children may be found (e.g., versions of the song, “Kumbayah,” which avoid words such as “Lord”). The music teacher can explain the musical importance or merit of selections, and strive for diversity, multiculturalism and sensitivity to the backgrounds of all students, including the many students who are nonreligious. Enlightened school districts everywhere have dropped public school concerts timed to coincide only with religious holidays, particularly the Christmas and Easter holidays of the dominant religion. This inevitably creates the appearance of school endorsement of one religion’s holiday over others in the eyes of children.

If you are having a dispute over selections in your child’s primary schools, avoid letting the principal pit you, the parent, against the music teacher. A good principal should make a decision that does not force you to personally confront or argue with the teacher. If you find the principal’s decision unacceptable, go over his or her head! Contact your District’s Superintendent or your District’s music director. Most school officials know better than to retaliate against a child whose parent has complained, but you may need to insist that your vulnerable child not be drawn by school authorities into your state/church complaint.

If you believe a music practice or selection at your children’s public school is crossing the line, and you need help, submit appropriate documentation, including scans of music programs, links to school concert websites, etc., and name of offending District, school principal and music teacher, at Names of complainants are held in confidence, but we cannot help you without documentation and we may need to contact you if we have questions. It is important to document all song selections in musical concerts (not just the religious songs), provide lyrics to little-known songs and clearly state your concerns, include copies of your correspondence with the school, names of offending teachers, principal and superintendent contact information, etc.

Written by Annie Laurie Gaylor. Last updated 9/14/09

Freedom From Religion Foundation