By Joe Dejka
The majestic strains of Handel's “Hallelujah” chorus trumpeting from a slide projector seemed out of place.
Amid the legions of public school board members and superintendents — 1,000 from throughout Nebraska — the religious masterwork sounded a discordant note — somewhat like the aroma of beef stew wafting through a PETA convention.
Bent over the projector was Lincoln attorney Neal Stenberg, preparing to deliver some timely advice: Allowing religious music at school programs is OK, as long as you abide by simple rules to keep from running afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
“I think there's a need to remind people it's lawful,” he said.
Every winter, America's educators wrestle with how to deal with the First Amendment's Establishment Clause — commonly interpreted as requiring the separation of church and state — while recognizing the traditions on which the holidays are based.
Although most districts have found a way to balance those interests, fear of lawsuits and confusion about the law have driven some school boards and teachers to cut religious songs unnecessarily from school settings.
Last year, school officials in North Carolina pulled the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from an elementary school winter concert after a parent complained the song contained the words “Santa” and “Christmas.” Widely ridiculed for their decision, school officials then reversed themselves.
In a backlash against such bans, a Redding, Calif., substitute teacher is gathering signatures on a petition that would require the state's public schools to let students listen to or perform Christmas music.
Despite confusion about the use of religious music in schools, Stenberg said, courts have upheld its constitutionality.
When schools use religious music, however, the objectives must be secular, he said.
“It's important to understand the distinction between teaching religious music for a secular purpose and trying to inculcate some religious value through the use of music. The former is lawful, the latter is not,” he said.
Stenberg's credentials lie in music and school law.
He is a former legal counsel for the Nebraska Association of School Boards and currently advises several school boards and Southeast Community College. His brother, Don, is the former Nebraska attorney general.
Neal Stenberg, 59, took voice lessons at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and professes the ability to sing a tenor aria in four languages. He sings in the St. Paul United Methodist Church choir in Lincoln and, in his younger days, ran with a rock band called Sour Mash.
Schools, he said, should select music for its educational value, such as its historic value or the skills it demands of musicians, not to advance a particular religious belief.
In 2002, an atheistic couple sued the Woodbine Community School District, northeast of Council Bluffs in Iowa's Harrison County, to prevent the choir from singing “The Lord's Prayer” at high school graduation. The school board had overruled the decision of the principal and choir director not to use the song. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the school's intent in singing “The Lord's Prayer” was to promote Christianity.
“The court said, ‘There is no secular purpose here.' The whole purpose by the board is to actually add a prayer into the graduation,” Stenberg said.
Choosing a diverse selection from different faiths “just makes good sense,” to show people their traditions are being respected, he said.
In 2008, three-quarters of Nebraskans and Iowans identified themselves as Christian, the same percentage as the country overall, according to Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey.
Three percent of Nebraskans and 4 percent of Iowans identified themselves as non-Christian, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.
Fifteen percent of Iowans and 17 percent of Nebraskans said they had no religion. The rest didn't know or declined to take the survey.
Stenberg said that although offering musical diversity is desirable, it isn't necessarily enough to stay within the law.
“If the purpose of using ‘Silent Night' as a song is to try to persuade someone to become a Christian, then the fact that you add in a Hanukkah song isn't going to save you,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, a public school choir singing a repertoire of all religious songs at a local church would be constitutional if the performance could be defended on educational grounds. For example, a church setting might offer unique acoustics or accompanists that make it a can't-miss opportunity for students, he said.
Alan Potash, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the main hope with winter concerts or programs is that students feel included by the music selections.
“The music teacher should know who the audience is. ... And to alienate one religion or alienate students is not an appropriate educational experience,” Potash said.
He said he fields calls each year from parents concerned about programs that put too much emphasis on one faith over another.
The Anti-Defamation League says in position statements that school choirs should not sing religious music only and should not focus on a particular holiday or denomination, and that officials should excuse public school children from singing religious music without fear of embarrassment or peer pressure.
The National Association for Music Education contends that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context “is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education.”
The chorales of J.S. Bach, the “Hallelujah” chorus, spirituals and Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service all have an important role in developing a student's musical understanding and knowledge, the association says.
By some estimates, Stenberg said, 60 percent to 75 percent of serious choral music is based on sacred themes or text. Serious music from some historic periods is almost exclusively religious, he said.
In the Omaha Public Schools, elementary school teachers choose music based on the community and culture in which they teach, said Linda Hulsey, the district's vocal music supervisor.
They can “absolutely” use religious music, but the program should be diverse and include many genres, she said.
She said she reviews the selections and asks the teachers to have their principals review them as well.
As a result, programs vary widely from school to school.
For example, this year's program at Columbian Elementary School in west Omaha was decidedly secular. Under the theme “Sing a Song of Seasons,” the children sang about hot chocolate, snowmen and presents, but also about springtime, summer days, the beach and Halloween skeletons. None of the lyrics spoke of Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration based on African festivals.
Columbian music director Linda Schoening said the music was selected with regard to a substantial Jewish population in the community around the school. Next year, she said, she might include a variety of religious songs from different traditions.
Stenberg said districts can legally cut out all religious music, but by doing so they could face a backlash from those who want their traditions included. And they must beware to avoid using government to squelch religious freedom, he said.
When school officials in Frenchtown, N.J., refused to let 8-year-old Olivia Turton sing “Awesome God” in a talent show, a federal judge ruled the district had trammeled her freedom of speech.
“Even the ACLU entered this case on Olivia's side,” Stenberg said. “And that's saying something.”