Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Religious Music in School

I hope people google the exact title I've given this post and then read this, because I have a simple idea that solves everything, and that not enough public school choral directors do.

Just like that.

The Problems

  • Teachers are obligated, by virtue of the Establishment Clause, to neither promote nor inhibit religion or spirituality.  In the particular case of [public school] choral music, communities have disagreements about whether religious music should be taught.  Is a teacher promoting religion if he/she compels students to sing the words, "in nomine Dei...Amen," to a captive audience?  Is a teacher inhibiting religion if she/he avoids all mentions or references to any god during a holiday concert?
  • Choral directors can easily develop a habit of overcorrection in response to complaints from parents if they cannot persuasively and swiftly quell unrest.  Some directors choose to never perform religious music.
  • Some directors do take the opportunity provided by their position to attempt to influence families toward their religion of choice by overemphasizing and predominantly selecting particular religious music.  I've seen this happen.

The Vital Information

  • Religious music, particularly that of Catholic nature, has had an undeniable impact on the development of western music.  Since performing music is a very effective way to learn about music, never performing religious music is akin to never viewing religious works of art in Art History class or never discussing the Protestant reformation in World History.
  • In accordance with the above reasoning, the National Association for Music Education states clearly, "The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience."
  • There is a robust legal guide that all teachers should be aware of: The Lemon Test.  This is a test established by the U.S. Supreme Court that, if met by a decision or situation, almost guarantees that no violation of the principle of separation of church and state has occurred.  According to this test, an action is acceptable if it (1) has a secular purpose, (2) has a primarily secular effect, and (3) avoids excessive entanglement with religion.

The Solution

Choral directors should always explicitly determine the academic and musical benefits of teaching a particular song.  They must do this for themselves when selecting the music, and they must explain it to students as well (especially if asked).  If the benefits do not meet the Lemon Test, or if they are redundant relative to another selection, the song should be put aside.

This simple habit does everything necessary.  It prevents the promotion or inhibition of religion, it prepares a director with explanations that meet community or administrative demands, and it guarantees the inclusion of educationally beneficial secular music.  Beyond that which is necessary, it also helps teachers meet curriculum guidelines, it helps to balance the educational emphases of a program, and it provides students with an awareness of what they are meant to be learning.

You're welcome.

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