My particular contribution is a piece on an interesting, maddening case: Nurre v. Whitehead. What is this? Well, in Washington State, there is a high school named for Scoop Jackson — Henry M. Jackson High School, in Mill Creek, outside of Everett. The school had had a little tradition, whereby the wind ensemble got to play a piece of its choice at graduation. But in 2006, there was a problem: The ensemble wanted to play Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. And the superintendent of schools said no: because playing this piece — even in a strictly instrumental version, no words — would constitute an “endorsement” of religion.The school superintendent didn't know what "Ave Maria" meant, but she knew it was religious and therefore, wrong. This is a woman in charge of the education of thousands of children - she sounds like she shouldn't be entrusted with a janitor's mop.
If you think this is bizarre, you are not alone.
A student in the ensemble, Kathryn Nurre, sued. And the case went to the federal district court in Seattle and then to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The student lost, and the school superintendent won, in each court. The student’s backers are hoping that the Supreme Court will hear the case and rebuke the lower courts, providing clear and sane guidelines. The Ninth Circuit has a happy tradition of being overturned. And they are a little funny when it comes to religion — these are the people, remember, who banned the Pledge of Allegiance, for a time (because of “under God”).
I will not rehash the Nurre case in Impromptus — you can read about it in NR — but I’d like to say a few additional words. Biebl’s Ave Maria is less known than Schubert’s, or the one Gounod made from the Bach prelude. But it is an extraordinary, beautiful, transcendent piece. In 1964, Biebl wrote it for a choir of firemen in Munich. (Fire departments were different, long ago and far away.) It eventually made its way to our shores, picked up and spread by Chanticleer, the a cappella group from San Francisco. It is their signature encore. Audiences wait for it and do not want to leave without it. Robert Shaw also recorded it, with his Chamber Singers.
If you don’t know this piece, you’ll want to treat yourself to it.
I also want to highlight the dissent by Milan Smith. He was on the three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit, and that vote was 2 against 1 — with Smith being the 1, of course. Just listen for a second:I am concerned that, if the majority’s reasoning on this issue becomes widely adopted, the practical effect will be for public school administrators to chill — or even kill — musical and artistic presentations by their students . . . where those presentations contain any trace of religious inspiration, for fear of criticism by a member of the public, however extreme that person’s views may be.In my NR piece, I talk a little about the nature of music. The school superintendent admitted that she didn’t know what the words “Ave Maria” meant. (They have to do with a football pass.) But she knew they related to religion, and that’s why she felt she needed to block the piece. She did not want the title printed in the graduation program. In my article, I ask, What if the wind ensemble had said the piece was called something else — not “Ave Maria,” but “Against the Despoliation of the Earth,” or “The Peace of Islam,” or “Ode to Obama”? Would that have been all right?
The First Amendment neither requires nor condones such a result. The taking of such unnecessary measures by school administrators will only foster the increasingly sterile and hypersensitive way in which students may express themselves . . . and hasten the retrogression of our young into a nation of Philistines, who have little or no understanding of our civic and cultural heritage.
And Nordlinger follows with this observation:
Finally, want to share with you a note from a friend of mine: “At my kids’ school, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ was censored by the music teacher, with humming over the ‘offensive’ parts. So the carol came out, ‘Silent night, mmmm, mmm, mmm, mmmm / All is calm, all is bright / Mmmm mmm mmmmmmm . . . You get the point.” I do. And it is a revolting point. Besides which, said my friend, other songs are not censored: not Native American chants to the Great Spirit, not Kwanzaa songs, not Hanukah songs, not odes to the Norse gods — just the Christian ones.