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Marshfield, Wisconsin Schools and Religious Music

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Jan 30, 2014 01:45 PM EST

No Christmas(Photo : Public Domain Dedication / Edited by Kim Jones)

Last October, the Wausau high school’s elite Master Singers in Marshfield, Wisconsin, made national news. The coverage wasn't due to their talent (though arguably, the 20-member group is quite talented); the coverage was because they put too much Christmas into their "winter concerts."

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Phil Buch, the group's director since 1981, was told that he had three choices regarding the music selection for the December concerts:

1. Perform five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed
2. Perform no holiday music at all
3. Postpone any December performances

Rather than bring his group to the dozens of Christmas programs they were invited to perform at without any Christmas music, he temporarily disbanded the Master Singers. A special school board meeting was held and dozens of residents, both Christian and those who aren't of the Christian faith, spoke of rampant censorship

The Wausau Daily Herald reported that even before the residents stood to speak, the board had already voted to put the decision about whether to schedule winter concerts back into the hands of school principals. They had also decided to change the new limits on the performance of sacred music (choirs could either perform no religious songs or limit them to one to every five secular songs), and voted to revert to an older policy in which principals, rather than district administrators, will be the ones to review song lists of performances. The School Board also voted to work out a new policy in the next year with input from the community.

It turns out that the story didn't actually begin in October with the 2013 Christmas concerts. The school district released a 23-page report on their website detailing how there was five years of scrutiny prior to the explosion in October. Not surprisingly, it all began with a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the former District Superintendent in August of 2009. Six months later, Nell Anderson, the Director of Education and Equality, responded to them that new rules were in place to make all musicial selections go through the school principal rather than just be up to the discretion of the musical director. Though the principals never took any issues with song choices for performances, the district administrators stayed on top of each and every song, tallying up those with "religious" content. In the fall of 2011, a meeting was held with Phil Buch, School superintendent Kathleen Williams, Marla Berg (Coordinator for Music), Wausau School Board President Michelle Schaefer and Nell Anderson. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Buch's music selections. "Each of the individuals in the meeting explained that the goal of the discussion was to assure that Buch, along with all choral directors, maintained balance in their music selections." (Keep in mind, their idea of "balance" was performing five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed.

After the 2012 Winter Concert, Williams and Schaefer "expressed concern that the program was not balanced and focused too much on the celebration of Christmas" even though the school principal had, as ordered, gone over and approved the song selections.

With a spring concert coming up and the principals not getting on board with the censorship, The Longfellow Administrative Team (Williams, Anderson, Jeff Gress - Director of HR, Amy Arlen - Communication Coordinator, Bryon Kolbeck - Director of Technology & Media Services, Tammy Nyen - Director Special Ed, Jeff Lindell - Director Pupil Services, Cherna Gorder - Chief Finance & Business Services Officer, Thom Hahn - Director of Secondary Education, and Andrea Sheridan - Director of Teaching) met. They suggested that Ms. Northup (Director of Fine Arts) review the Spring concert music. Ms. Northup approved the music for the spring concert but Nell Anderson wasn't satisfied. She wanted more "non-Christian" music. After several emails back and forth, she finally got Northup to agree that a piece by Martina McBride and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" should be removed.

By the time the December 2013 concert prep time rolled around, the school district lawyers were involved. A meeting with school district attorney Frank Sutherland was incredibly vague as Sutherland made it "clear to the group that the purpose of the meeting was not to answer specific hypothetical situations or to provide specific answers to music lists." When Buch explained that the Christmas concerts that the Master Singers were invited to perform at were held at "private businesses, nursing homes, etc." for "Christmas celebrations" (and people going to a Christmas party expect to hear Christmas music), Sutherland responded by saying that this was the "kind of situation that would raise concern" and that he would "want to look at more closely." His looking more closely led to another committee meeting where he stressed the "the school would have an obligation to not sponsor or support or facilitate Christmas caroling." Three pages of legalise, ums and wink, winks from the lawyer later, Buch tried to end the meeting so the admistrators could do the school stuff and the lawyer could do the legal stuff but Sutherland would have none of that. Even though he had not personally seen the music choices for the December performances, he was determined to weigh in on them. The outcome was, as the news reported, anything but balanced and it took the town standing together and national media attention before anything changed.

It's sad that one letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation caused five years of uproar. One note took music out of the hands of those hired to teach it. One missive had school board officials dancing like frantic puppets and lawyers blustering their way through meetings. One threat of a potential lawsuit and an entire school district danced through five years of hoops, putting their music teachers through the wringer and their students through tons of confusion.

With spring approaching, one has to wonder what songs the children in Marshfield will be allowed to perform.

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