Public School Students Can Sing Religious Songs, Iowa Board Rules

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 13, 2015 2 min read
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Should public school students be singing about Jesus?

According to Iowa’s State Board of Education, it’s not a problem, as long as the song is chosen for its educational value rather than to promote Christianity, the Associated Press reports.

This month’s ruling by the Iowa board came after parents of a student in the 1,400-student New Hampton Community School District raised concerns about students performing Christian-themed songs while holding hands and “encircling” audience members. The state board’s ruling upheld the New Hampton school board’s decision that the performance was appropriate.

Three of the state board’s eight members voted against the ruling. But a judge ruled that the songs had not been selected in order to advance Christianity. The choir also performed songs that were not Christian-themed and songs from countries around the world, according to the AP. Students had the option of sitting the religious song out.

The role of religion, a perpetual issue in public schools, is particularly perplexing for music educators. Sacred music makes up a substantial part of the classic repertoire.

The National Association for Music Education’s public position is that learning about and performing sacred music is a necessary and appropriate part of music education, and that its inclusion does not violate the First Amendment, which calls for the separation of church and state. But it says that educators’ purpose should be secular in nature; that the effect of the activity must not celebrate or inhibit religion; and that it must not involve entanglement with religious groups or organizations. The association draws a comparison between students learning pieces of a Bach mass and architecture students studying Renaissance cathedrals.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a list of questions that concerned community members or parents can ask to help determine whether sacred music is being used appropriately, including the age of the students involved and whether performances are tied explicitly to religious holidays or held in religious venues.

But the lines aren’t always clear. In 2009, a court ruled that a school district in Washington was within its rights in deciding that a wind ensemble could not perform a version of “Ave Maria,” a setting of a Roman Catholic prayer, at a high school graduation. That case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to review the case in 2010.

One of the songs in question in the Iowa case was “In This Very Room.” Sample lyrics, via the Des Moines Register: “For Jesus, Lord Jesus, in this very room...” But New Hampton is not the only high school choir that’s performed the song. Here’s a version being performed by an Arkansas all-state high school choir.

One interesting outcome of the New Hampton case: The school district has created a new diversity committee, according to the Des Moines Register.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.