A series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on State/Church issues addresses the question of of the legality of religious music in public schools.
Freedom from Religion Foundation
Last updated: September 14, 2009
Annie Laurie Gaylor
Religious Music in Public Schools
My child’s choir is singing religious music. Is that legal?
In its more than three decades of activism, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken more complaints over promotion of religion in public school music classes and team sports than any other type of complaint!
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
- Is the religious song or music in question chosen for its educational value or its religious content?
- 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?).
- 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?).
- 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.
- Does the school district schedule public concerts only for Christmas and Easter. Does it use religious holiday titles?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.