Some Missoula parents say school's holiday program not secular enough

2012-12-13T06:08:00Z 2012-12-17T09:06:04Z Some Missoula parents say school's holiday program not secular enoughBy BETSY COHEN Missoulian The Billings Gazette
December 13, 2012 6:08 am  • 

MISSOULA — A group of parents at Chief Charlo Elementary School are so upset over the selection of songs for the school’s holiday music program they are considering legal counsel.

The parents outlined their concerns in a letter sent to the superintendent of the Missoula County Public Schools district, stating, among many issues, they feel the programming is unfair, unconstitutional and is a form of bullying.

“With many of the children in our neighborhood up here being Jewish and Buddhist, as well as a few Muslim and atheist students, we were assured that this year it would be a secular program,” said the letter, which was signed by “concerned parents” but listed no individual names.

“One of the largest complaints last year were the young children singing about ‘their lord.’ This was concerning to many families and it was clear that several of the students were uncomfortable.”

The letter went on to say: “We have no problem with it being called a Christmas concert, it’s just the fact the material should be secular. Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. These are things that offend no one, but when the children are singing about their lord and savior, Jesus Christ ... public school is not the place.”

When contacted for more information about the matter, two of the concerned parents said they did not want to publicly share their names, as they were concerned about their children and families being further ostracized or singled out.

School administrators explained that they take such matters very seriously and work hard to create an inclusive school environment.

This year was no different, and despite the parents’ concerns about the school’s concerts Wednesday, the programming was in fact quite secular, said John Combs, MCPS fine arts director.

During the morning concert, in which the K-3 classes sang, the song lineup was as follows: “Joy to the World,” “Up On a House Top,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” “O Christmas Tree,” “O Come Little Children,” “Deck the Halls,” a Polish lullaby ( the words of which are sung to baby Jesus), a Hanukkah song, a pinata song, a Nutcracker rhythm piece, concluding with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

The afternoon programming, which the grade 4-5 classes performed included: “Season of Bells,” “Dreidel Spins,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “Merry Merry,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” concluding with “Go in Peace.”

“Every year, there will be some kind of complaint about the Christmas music,” Combs said. “We hear it from both sides – it’s too secular or it’s too sacred. There’s always something wrong with it.

“I’ve learned in the years I’ve been doing this that you can’t win.”

If there’s any agenda to musical programming, Combs said, it comes down to cultural significance and seasonal appropriateness.

“We work hard to put together a program that is respectful of everybody’s views, and yes, sometimes it can lean one way, and when that happens, we balance in out the next year the other way.

“Parents need to realize that these kids are getting a great education in music, and that these are the songs of the season. By the time they move through K-5, they will have a wonderful variety of what these seasons offer – they will know the secular and sacred songs of the season.”

Because the parents sent an anonymous letter, it makes communication about the matter all the more difficult, said Alex Apostle, MCPS superintendent.

Nevertheless, Apostle said he welcomes the parents’ feedback and concerns, and MCPS takes matters of separation of church and state seriously.

“During the holidays we, as a school district, are very cognizant regarding our district policy pertaining to the holidays and the importance of separation of church and state,” Apostle said. “But at the same time, we as a school system, want our children to enjoy the holiday season. In the process, we are obviously respectful of the beliefs and cultures of all children and their families.”

“These are difficult waters sometimes, and I think we are moving forward in a respectful way,”Apostle said.

Although he’s learned to brace for criticism at this time each year, Combs said he never considers the calls from parents as annoying or distracting.

“I hear them as concerned about their child, and they are really passionate about this matter,” Combs said. “That’s OK. I really am happy to to hear their concerns, and make sure folks know I know their concerns are important, because they are important.”

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