Americans United for Separation of Church and State yesterday trumpeted a new low in the separation of education and culture: a Supreme Court declination of a case from Washington state that decided that certain kinds of beautiful music–namely, music that’s tainted by a religious association or title–may not be played at a high school graduation. According to AU:
Kathryn Nurre was a senior at Mill Creek’s Henry M. Jackson High School in 2006 when she and other members of a school wind ensemble sought permission to play “Ave Maria” during graduation.
School officials had permitted the ensemble to play the song during a school recital earlier in the year but decided they wanted the graduation ceremony to be wholly secular. The title of the song is Latin for “Hail Mary,” and school officials were cognizant of a flap that arose over the use of a different religious song during the 2005 commencement. They didn’t want to repeat that mistake.
The Los Angeles Times has a bit more information:
Administrators raised red flags at the Everett, Wash., school when they heard about the idea from the wind ensemble seniors, who had played Franz Biebl’s uptempo 1964 rendering of “Ave Maria” without controversy at a winter concert.
A year before, choral performance of the song “Up Above My Head” at the 2005 commencement drew complaints and protest letters to the town’s newspaper. Therefore, school officials said the seniors could not play the song since the title alone identified “Ave Maria” as religious and that graduation should be strictly secular.
You may never have heard of Biebl, or of his version of “Ave Maria.” If not, you can find several free versions of it here. It’s not Franz Schubert, but it’s pretty good, and the fact that it wasn’t the familiar version and that it was an instrumental meant that as “proselytism” material (yes, AU raised that dreaded specter) it was awfully weak. But the school administration was afraid that even putting the title of the piece in the graduation program would raise howls of outrage by the thin-skinned contingent, so it refused to let the student perform the piece. When she sued, AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in which it contended that letting Nurre play this piece at graduation “could have granted public school students sweeping new rights to impose prayer, Bible reading and other forms of religious worship on captive audiences at school-sponsored events,” dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. You know the drill.
So the net result is that within the Ninth Circuit at least, and certainly in a world in which AU gets to set the rules, students will no longer be permitted to hear “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” or any other great piece of music that is tainted by association with religion at an official school function. (Why stop at graduation ceremonies?) That presumably would not apply to performances such as this one:
No word yet on when AU will be siccing the lawyers on these kids or their school.