Christmas carol stockimage

BONNER – Bonner School officials and the parents of a student there cannot agree about the use of religious songs in music class.

Early this school year, Shelly Hall-Crobar and her husband, Erin Crobar, said their son came home from school saying some of the songs in music class made him uncomfortable because they were religious.

"I was raised very Christian, but I do think it's a little much for public school," Hall-Crobar said.

She emailed the school in September, expressing her son's concerns and pointing out that religious music should not be used in a public school, saying it violates the separation of church and state.

She asked that the songs be removed from the class, and that if the teacher continued to use them, that her son be excused.

In an email a month later, Hall-Crobar says the religious songs were not removed, and her son was "asked to stand in the hallway."

The parents and school administration met in November. In an email following the meeting, the school declined to remove the religious songs.

Hall-Crobar said if the school refused to remove all religious music from the curriculum, she asked that her son be allowed to read in the library during that time.

"There's not a hard and fast rule," said ACLU of Montana executive director Caitlin Borgmann. "The key thing for a school to think about when doing this is that religious speech, symbols and celebrations are allowed if done in an educational way, and not as an actual practice of religion."

A handy guideline, she said, is "teach, don't preach."

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Bonner School superintendent Jim Howard said that songs with religious references make up less than 5 percent of the textbook, "Share the Music," used in the class.

He said the textbook includes "African-American spirituals ... music from the 19th century, and music representing Mexican, Italian and Jewish as well as American cultural traditions." Hall-Crobar also reviewed the textbook and found that 11 percent is religious music – the majority of which she said is Christian, and a small portion Jewish.

Some of the songs that the parents object to include "Little David, Play On Your Harp," "Oh, Won't You Sit Down" and "Wade in the Water," among others.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent the school a letter on Nov. 17 asking that the religious songs be removed from the curriculum. AU cited several cases, including S.D. v. St. Johns County School District, a Florida case in 2009 in which the court found that it was unconstitutional for an elementary school to expect students to perform "In God We Still Trust" at an end-of-year assembly.

In a prepared statement, Howard said "no child is required to perform music to which he or she may object" and "no student is punished for objecting."

Howard said the songs that the parents object to are included for their historical and cultural significance, citing a 1963 case, School Dist. of Abington Township, Pa. v. Schempp, which says material with religious messages is not unconstitutional "when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."

Ian Smith, Americans United staff attorney, said in an email to school officials that Howard's explanation that the songs are used in a cultural and historical context is "nonsense."

"The religious content is unconstitutional and we expect you to remove it," Smith wrote.

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Bonner School's policy says, "Staff members may teach students about religion in history, art, music, literature, and other subjects in which religious influence has been and continues to be felt. However, staff members may not teach religion or advocate religious doctrine or practice. The prohibition against teaching religion extends to curricular decisions which promote religion or religious beliefs."

"The inclusion of religious music, symbols, art or writings is permitted, if the religious content has a historical or independent educational purpose which contributes to the objectives of the approved curriculum."

Hall-Crobar told the Missoulian that she sees nothing wrong with Christianity or holiday music in general. Rather, it's the use of any religious music in a public school.

The ACLU's Borgmann said, "It's the line between educating students and proselytizing or practicing. Part of that is how you treat the subject, part is what all is included and what isn't."

She said including context and history around Christianity may not be enough if other cultures and religions are not included.

"One of the things you sometimes hear is ... why are we learning about Native American religions, the implication being that there should be equal time given to all religions," she said. "I think that's misguided as well. Part of the reason we teach about certain kinds of cultures, like Islam or Native Americans, is they can be very often misunderstood and subject to stereotyping – precisely because students tend to have less access to them and less direct contact with them in their personal life.

"It doesn't mean Christianity has to be excluded from school curricula, but it should be part of the sensitivity of staff ... on how to incorporate Christianity into them."

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Smith sees it as more cut and dried, saying religious music in public schools is unconstitutional.

"I get a little worked up about this, religious music especially, in a situation where you have school districts stripping down arts programs," he said. "They're removing art, music, drama for budgetary reasons and standards-testing reasons. A lot of times public school choir programs are the only way in which a lot of people will ever get the chance to sing in a choir or to engage with music in any kind of academic fashion.

"To me, it closes off an opportunity for all their students to engage equally in the program. It's a level of stubbornness that blows me away. It's easy to fix; just sing non-religious songs."

While the parents initially asked that their son be removed from class if religious songs are sung, Smith argued that removal "looks like punishment."

This issue is "not an unusual conundrum" in public schools, Borgmann said, "especially in a state like Montana where we have a very high Christian population and we're not as diverse as lots of other states."

Because this is a debate over the curriculum, rather than a single holiday event, it's "potentially more problematic," she said.

"If it's going on all year long, I'd want to know more about whether it's being done in an educational way," she said. 

If the school includes music from a variety of religions and provides cultural context, it likely doesn't need to change that practice, Borgmann said.

"Really all I want is for them to stop singing religious music at a public school and ostracizing my son," Hall-Crobar said. "I don't want Bonner School to suffer, I just want this resolved."

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Reporter for the Missoulian