Outcry over a demand that a high school Christmas concert include five secular songs for every religious one, and the subsequent disbanding of an exclusive student choir, has pushed the school board in Wausau, Wis., to schedule a special session tonight to gather public comment on the issue.
Phil Buch, who has directed the Wausau West High School choir program for the past 30 years, told the Daily Herald Media he was called into a meeting last Thursday with administrators during which he was given three options for The Master Singers’ upcoming Christmas performances: perform five secular songs for every religious one, sing no Christmas music at all, or postpone any winter concerts until after December. Buch rebuffed the restrictions and disbanded the choir in protest.
Traditionally, The Master Singers (TMS) perform not only a school Christmas concert, but at several outside venues during the holiday season, including shows for businesses, civic groups, and nursing homes. An attorney recently hired by the school district holds that these performances are too close to “caroling” and thus violate the separation of church and state.
After the news broke Friday, the newspaper received hundreds of online comments and letters from local residents and former TMS choir members, the vast majority of which supported Buch and expressed disgust with the district’s effort to dictate the choir’s Christmas music choices. Simultaneously, 15 elementary schools in the county district jointly cancelled their Christmas concerts.
District officials are now on the defensive. Superintendent Kathleen Williams said in a statement released Monday that no specific ratio of religious to non-religious songs has been established. Rather, the district’s attorney recommended taking the Christmas “theme” out of traditional winter concerts all together: “If the format were changed to a new theme, it could be possible to include one religiously themed Christmas selection along with four other varied selections, which reflected themes from other religious, secular, or cultural traditions. The point of this example was to emphasize the need to make a true change in the theme of the scheduled performances.”
Williams’ statement also said the elementary school winter concerts were postponed until spring not because of content, but because students need more time to study for state and federal standardized tests.
Prior to last week’s directive, the school district had not received any complaints or lawsuit threats about the content of TMS Christmas concerts. Officials told Daily Herald Media the district’s administrative rules were under review due to a change in leadership in the district’s fine arts program.
However, officials now have to contend with an army of fired-up students and parents. A new Facebook page titled “Wausau School District Cancels Christmas” features a picture of the Grinch and has garnered almost 800 “likes.” In addition, school board President Michelle Schaefer said the board will meet Thursday in a closed session to “confer with legal counsel regarding advice and strategy related to threat of potential litigation” from angry residents, according to Daily Herald Media.
Due to the controversy, the school board announced it will hold an open session tonight including a time for public comment and possible action by the board. The meeting, which normally happens in an office, has been scheduled in an auditorium due to the expected crowds.