Sacred Music: Forbidden or Essential?

Does music with a sacred text have a place in the public schools?

Eliminating sacred music is terribly insulting to the rich (and yes, historically existent) repertoire of great choral classics. As my 4th grader once remarked, ‘Daddy, Andrew Jackson didn’t celebrate “winterfest” — it was Christmas’ —- we should live with this fact and simply continue to respect everyone (oh, by the way having a choir sing the great classics doesn’t have to be done for “religious” reasons; it is part of our glorious musical past, and I’d say present).” – – The Music Man, MENC Choral Discussion Forum

According to the MENC position statement on Music with a Sacred Text, “It is the position of MENC: The National Association for Music Education that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience.”

The statement continues:

  • “The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in the public schools. It prohibits the advancement or inhibition of religion by the state.
  • “A second clause in the First Amendment prohibits the infringement of religious beliefs. The public schools are not required to delete from the curriculum all materials that may offend any religious sensitivity.
  • “For instance, the study of art history would be incomplete without reference to the Sistine Chapel, and the study of architecture requires an examination of Renaissance cathedrals. Likewise, a comprehensive study of music includes an obligation to become familiar with choral music set to religious texts.
  • “The chorales of J. S. Bach, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, spirituals, and Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service all have an important place in the development of a student’s musical understanding and knowledge.”

I try to stay away from overtly religious holiday music myself, though I’m getting braver. Cutting out sacred music does away with a huge portion of the historical choral literature; it eliminates a great deal of Mozart, Handel, and nearly everything by Bach, not to mention more recent works like spirituals. I think we should be lobbying for more sacred music on those grounds.” — Tim Rogers, MENC Choral Discussion Forum.

How sacred?
To conform to the constitutional standards of religious neutrality necessary in public schools, ask yourself these questions*:

1. What is the purpose of the activity? Is the purpose secular in nature, that is, studying music of a particular composer’s style or historical period?

2. What is the primary effect of the activity? Is it the celebration of religion? Does the activity either enhance or inhibit religion? Does it invite confusion of thought or family objections?

3. Does the activity involve excessive entanglement with a religion or religious group, or between the schools and religious organizations? Financial support can sometimes be considered an entanglement.

If the music educator’s use of sacred music can withstand the test of these questions, it is probably not in violation of the First Amendment.

Since music with a sacred text or of a religious origin (particularly choral music) constitutes such a substantial portion of music literature and has such an important place in the history of music, it should and does have an important place in music education.

* In 1971, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in Lemon v. Kurtzman recommended asking these questions for each school-sanctioned observance, program, or institutional activity involving religious content, ceremony, or celebration.
Sue Rarus, October 1, 2008,  © National Association for Music Education