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Advocacy groups weigh in on Wausau Schools music issues


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) - Wausau Public Schools controversy about holiday concerts and religious music has attracted attention from advocacy groups far from Wausau.

The Madison based Freedom From Religion organization has not been involved in the recent Wausau music situation. District officials have not disclosed if anyone is suing or threatening to sue the district over religious musical content in school concerts.

Two groups have been in touch with district officials urging them to reverse course and restore the guidelines in place before last week. They are the Scottsdale Arizona based Alliance Defending Freedom and Madison based Wisconsin Family Action.

Rory Gray from the Alliance Defending Freedom says they support defend religious liberty, right to life, and marriage and family issues. Gray says a Wausau parent contacted them. “We were actually contacted by a mother who’s opposed to the new policy, and we were also called by the Family Policy Council in Wisconsin about this issue to get some legal advice, and so we decided to send a letter to the school board why the new practice is really not a good idea and is completely unnecessary.” He says schools across America play religious music in their curriculum, because it’s part of culture and history, and because many great works of music had religious themes. “Courts have uniformly approved having those in public schools, so we were rather concerned and confused as to why the district thought that was an issue.”

Gray says the Wausau situation is unlike anything he has seen before. “Honestly, I can’t remember a lawsuit ever being filed over this sort of thing, just because the courts have been so unanimously supportive of including religious music in school choir performances.” He says this is concerning because there was nobody from outside raising an issue, yet the district basicly made it impossible to hold holiday concerts for no apparent reason.>The Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling agrees with Gray, but says this has stirred up interest from legal groups from both sides of the issue. “I do know this, that Alliance Defending Freedom has done nothing about a lawsuit, nothing. I’m not trying to say that they are the ones. They are not, but I know legal groups are beginning to look at this and take action.”

Appling is a former school board member in Whitewater, and has seen difficult issues from that perspective. She says school boards could impose these religious music limits if they choose to. “School boards have enormous latitude. Now because the law is more generous than what the Wausau School District is attempting to force their music faculty and music programs to do, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to do that.” Appling says school boards may have the authority to make restrictions like those discussed in Wausau over the past week, but it doesn’t mean they should. She also believes Wausau’s response to the public Tuesday was inadequate. “I don’t think it’s smart, and I don’t think the school district has laid out a very valid case at all in defense of their decision. I especially think that from my perspective, the legal paper that was produced by the law firm that is representing the Wausau School District, I didn’t think that was very meaty & very authoritative at all.”

Appling plans to attend the special meeting of the Wausau School Board Thursday at 6:30 p.m. That meeting is at the East High School auditorium, right after the board meets in closed session with administration and legal counsel.

The school’s attorney has guided administrators towards limits on religious music. There are at least three issues likely to come up: Can the Wausau West Master Singers perform religious songs in and out of school? Can the elementary holiday programs be reinstated?   Should the administration have involved the school board before making the changes? 

We may get the answers Thursday.