A Kansas choir teacher got pushback from the Freedom From Religion Foundation after leading her students in a spiritual often interpreted as a plea for release from slavery.
When a middle school choir teacher in Goddard, Kansas, led sixth graders in singing “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” and taught them about the song’s biblical basis, a parent contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In a Nov. 29 letter sent to Superintendent Justin Henry, the foundation called the lessons unconstitutional and asked the public school district to stop “teaching students religious worship songs and biblical stories.”
Two specific songs,“Praise His Holy Name” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” — and concerns about how the teacher presented them to students — sit at the center of the complaint.
Public schools can legally teach religious music in certain contexts, such as educating students on a musical genre or historical period. Schools fall into potential trouble when teachers proselytize, lead students in devotional activity or select Christian music without a secular purpose.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation contends that the teacher veered into unconstitutional territory, arguing that the songs were merely worship and didn’t have particular historical or educational value.
But that judgment isn’t self-evident. One of the two songs the complaint mentions is a traditional spiritual often interpreted as a plea for release from slavery. The other is a modern gospel song recognized as valuable by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
It’s reasonable to ask the district to investigate the concerns, said Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who researches Bible courses in public schools. But the foundation’s letter doesn’t include enough detail to judge whether the teacher crossed a line.
“It’s not just about legality, it’s also about sensitivity to diverse religious identities and the fact that many people in the community probably don’t identify with any religion at all,” Chancey said. “It all comes down to exactly why they chose these songs, what they were doing with these songs and how they explained the songs.”
The religious music performed
In an email to parents the district shared with The Beacon, Challenger Intermediate School Principal Darrin SanRomani acknowledged the foundation’s complaint and said the school “has shared this information with the choir instructors and will be meeting with them in person to discuss the concerns.”
He didn’t say whether he believed the teacher had done anything wrong. After an initial emailed response, district spokesperson Dane Baxa did not respond to requests for an interview.
The district’s statement said students performed the songs at a recent choir concert and that the district did not receive any direct complaints.
“Praise His Holy Name” is a gospel song by living composer Keith Hampton, the founder and artistic director of the Chicago Community Chorus. Its lyrics, which reference traditional hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” praise God and express love for Jesus.
“To have sixth graders sing a song that’s so full of specific praise for Jesus,” Chancey said, is “a lot to ask students who aren’t Christians.”
But he said he wasn’t very familiar with the song and that there could be legitimate secular reasons to teach it.
The piece is a recent addition to the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s list of required songs for choir festivals, which the association has been seeking to diversify with more female composers and composers of color. It’s one of many religious works on the list.
According to the composer’s website, when the North Central American Choral Directors Association gave Hampton an award in 2010, it specifically mentioned “Praise His Holy Name” as a song that “should be standard repertoire for choirs today and for the next 25 years.”
“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is an African-American spiritual that refers to figures from scripture being rescued by divine intervention and asks, “why not every man?”
Hampton University Museum’s website says it was performed by Black college choirs focused on spirituals and folk songs as early as the 1870s. Its lyrics are often interpreted as a plea for deliverance from enslavement.
“If you’re ever going to teach students about an African American spiritual, then by definition, you’re teaching them about a religious song,” Chancey said. “It’s OK to teach them about the religious aspects of the song as part of cultivating cultural literacy.”
It’s unclear whether the teacher discussed the song’s history with students, but the complaint alleges that students did learn about the biblical story of Daniel, which it describes as “a parable that teaches that one should have faith in and believe in the Abrahamic God.”
American public schools can teach entire courses on the Bible, though Chancey has said they often do so in inappropriate ways. This summer, Missouri joined the list of states with laws that explicitly allow that practice, but some Missouri schools were already offering Bible as literature classes.
“If the teacher told them about the story of Daniel that the lyrics presuppose, if the teacher read verses to them from the Bible that help illustrate what the song is about, that is plainly not unconstitutional,” Chancey said. “If the teacher told Bible stories and read the Bible verses to promote religious claims, that’s unconstitutional.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation agrees some circumstances exist where teaching religious music can have “legitimate secular educational goals and pedagogical value,” and it is aware that “a lot of choral music, especially historical choral music, was made for churches,” Samantha Lawrence, the legal fellow with the foundation who sent the letter, said in an interview.
But the group concluded the songs didn’t have educational value and that the Bible teaching was done in a devotional manner, she said.
The conclusion about the songs’ historical context seems to be based on incomplete information. Though “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” has roots in the 1800s, Lawrence said she didn’t “pinpoint an exact author or date” but believed from her research that both songs were written in the mid- to late 1900s and thought that they had “pretty basic lyrics that you see in a lot of devotional songs.”
“They’re not particularly historically valuable. They’re not really challenging either,” Lawrence said. “They’re just worship songs that you would hear in a modern church.”
Legal and ethical issues
The U.S. Supreme Court has never specifically ruled on religious music in public schools, but it has been clear that public schools can teach about religion in an objective, academic context.
In an email, Jamie Minneman, president of the Kansas Music Educators Association, referred The Beacon to a position statement from the National Association for Music Education, which says sacred music such as spirituals and the “Hallelujah Chorus” is “a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education.”
“By removing all sacred music, large amounts of standard and quality literature would be eliminated,” Minneman wrote. “However, the music must not be used to proselytize. KMEA also wants to stress the importance of local people making the decisions for their local schools.”
The decades-old national statement was written in the context of legal debates about sacred music in schools, said Matt Koperniak, a performing arts coordinator in a large Georgia school district who wrote an article suggesting the statement should be updated.
He thinks other questions are more relevant now that there’s a track record of courts siding with school districts whether they seek to include or restrict religious music.
Questions music educators should ask themselves include: barriers to performing sacred music from a variety of traditions, whether teachers’ approach differs when handling music from their own faith and what happens if a student can’t participate, he said.
Educators also have to grapple with local expectations, religious groups’ differing attitudes toward having sacred works performed in a concert hall and the blurry line between sacred and secular music, he said.
Some Americans think Christmas is sacred. Others think it’s secular. Some people complain if their religion’s music is excluded from school concerts. Others would consider it disrespectful to perform certain works outside of a sacred setting.
That complicates some attempts at diversity, but is “not a justification to only perform Christian music,” Koperniak said.
“Because they have such a wide variety of repertoire available to them,” he said, public school music teachers “should err on the side of caution in providing a very varied array of repertoire for their students to study and perform.”
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon