Atheist: ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ at elementary school is ‘proselytizing.’ But district fires right back.

Atheist: ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ at elementary school is ‘proselytizing.’ But district fires right back.
An atheist group has called out a Tennessee elementary school because a portion of "Hallelujah Chorus" was played to students. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

Atheists have been known to hit hard when public school employees appear to endorse or accommodate student prayer or religious expression. Now the target is classical music.

In this case, George Frideric Handel’s famed “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Seems a couple of parents told an atheist group — the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s East Tennessee chapter — that a portion of the classical piece was broadcasted to students at Linden Elementary School, the Oak Ridger reported.

With that, the paper said FFRF chapter President Aleta Ledendecker emailed Roger Ward, principal of the school in Oak Ridge, with a stern warning.

“While this music may be beautiful and even inspirational for Christians, it is not acceptable for broadcasting to the entire student body at Linden Elementary,” Ledendecker said in her email, the Oak Ridger reported. “In consideration of all the possible choices of music, this piece with its distinctly religious content can be interpreted as proselytizing. Such actions are clearly prohibited by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

According to the paper, her email added: “Please see that the music director makes appropriate choices for broadcasting to your student body beginning immediately. Furthermore, please reply with a report of the actions you have taken to assure that there will be no future music choices with even a hint of religious overtones.”

“Hallelujah Chorus” is one of the world’s most recognizable songs. Here’s a high school choir taking on the tune.

(Content warning: Religious lyrics dead ahead):

Ledendecker said in an interview with the Oak Ridger that she’s looking into whether playing in school an excerpt from the song was a constitutional violation.

But Ward explained things to Ledendecker in a return email, the paper said: “Our music teacher uses a historical basis in her classroom and as a part selects a composer of the week. Handel has been the composer that students are studying for the past 3 days and will continue to be the composer for the next 2.”

Using the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s words against them

Ledendecker’s initial email to Ward included a link to the FFRF’s “Top Ten Public School State/Church Violations,” the Oak Ridger reported — and “Proselytizing Via Music” is at the 10th spot.

But Ward quoted from the FFRF’s text to defend the selection of “Hallelujah Chorus,” the paper added, specifically that courts considered the “proportion of religious songs sung compared to secular.”

“Over the course of a 36-week school year, this music would be used 1/36th of the time,” Ward replied, the Oak Ridger said. “I would also add that only 20-30 seconds of the piece is used.”

The principal also noted — quoting again from the FFRF’s own text — that “if a curriculum is balanced, the inclusion of some classical sacred music in an educational context may not convey endorsement,” the paper added.

And Superintendent Bruce Borchers went further, telling the Oak Ridger that the district “strongly disagreed” with Ledendecker’s stance, and “through our attorney, we responded promptly to the writer suggesting that she was in error. Ms. Ledendecker has now sent a request for public documents to the school system and we are in the process of responding to her request for records.”

Ledendecker told the paper she made the open records request on the advice of the attorneys from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s main office in Madison, Wisconsin, and is trying to determine how and why the Handel piece was selected for the school’s music curriculum.

She told the Oak Ridger that the music “could have been selected more sensitively with regards to families who are secular” and that Ward’s response was “insensitive to the concerns of the parents at the very least.”

“This is the litmus test I use: If I were a Christian parent walking in the school, and I heard over the PA system during morning announcements music with the words ‘Praise Allah. Allah is the king on high. Bow down to Allah,’ how would I feel as a Christian parent with that being broadcast to all the children in the schools?” Ledendecker asked the paper. “If I would find that somewhat unsettling, then it is equally unsettling for secular parents.”

If ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ is banned at public schools, what works are next?

In addition to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” there’s no denying that much of the best classical music from years gone by carries Christian themes. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” Haydn’s “The Creation.” Mozart’s “Mass in C Minor.” Brahms’ “Sanctus.” Just to name a few.

It would seem that such music, given its greatness, is essential for students in music programs to digest. But if at some point a work such as “Hallelujah Chorus” is banned in public schools, will the aforementioned works follow? And then where will it stop?

(H/T: Todd Starnes)

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