The State Board of Education voted 5-3 today to approve a recommendation that they uphold the school board’s decision to allow the New Hampton school choir to continue singing religious songs and participate in performances at local churches.
A parent in the school district sought to block the performances and also to keep seniors from gathering in a circle and singing the song “In This Room” during their final concert.
Administrative law judge Nicole Proesch says she reviewed the parent’s appeal to determine whether the district’s action violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from establishing a religion. “We find that the district has correctly applied the Establishment Clause jurisprudence to the facts and circumstances, and that the district has not abused its discretion in choosing to continue its current practices,” Proesch told the board.
Proesch, who is also a lawyer for the board, says the role of the state board is to determine if the New Hampton School Board followed the law, not to make an opinion on whether the board believes the decision is right or wrong. “The question is, is whether or not they applied the Establishment Clause jurisprudence correctly to this facts and circumstances to this case,” Proesch says. “And I could not find that they did not apply the Establishment Clause jurisprudence correctly, and thus we find that there was no abuse of discretion in the board’s decision.”
Proesch was asked what it would have taken for her to rule the New Hampton board incorrectly allowed the chorus events to go on. “The question was whether or not the district had the purpose of providing these songs and doing these activities with the sole purpose in mind that ‘we want to advance Christianity, we want to advance religion in schools’. And there was just no evidence that that was the case,” Proesch says.
Board chair, Charles Edwards of Des Moines, says he agreed with the school district attorney who said the action by the district was “questionable, but not illegal.” “In my mind, I just can’t believe in this day and age when two-thirds of the world population — either doesn’t practice or practices a religion other than Christianity — how you would focus all of your choir teaching or much of the curriculum on Christianity But that’s just personal,”Edwards says.
Board member Mike May of Spirit Lake disagreed. “It seems to me the people here in the school district were pretty thoughtful about what they did. It wasn’t just an impulsive decision and they continued to do the things they were doing, it was well thought out,” May says.”I appreciate the explanations they gave to you. It seems to me that they are reasonable.” May told Proesch. May says it is not hard to understand why the New Hampton choir director used so many Christian songs. “I think it was explained fairly well. If you want to do choral selections, these Christian songs are part of that. In fact, there are a lot of those songs if the kids weren’t able to sing, you certainly would lose valuable experience,” May says.
Board member Diane Crookham-Johnson of Oskaloosa says she understands the importance of senior traditions and how emotional they can get. But she was critical of the choir using the song “In This Room.”
“And I hope that for kids in New Hampton that they can take that circle they make and holding hands and that experience that they have with the audience and with each other — and find a way to express that in a song that is more inclusive for everyone that is in the room,” Crookham-Johnson says.
Board member Mary Ellen Miller of Mason City says the board is in an awkward position of “being restrained by rules” but says she hopes personally the board could take some action to make changes in those rules. That prompted a response from Crookham-Johnson. “Perhaps that there decision, New Hampton’s decision, seems reasonable because it’s viewed through the lens of a white Christian group making a decision for what they think is a white Christian group,” Crookham-Johnson says. She suggests the New Hampton board is viewing the issue through a local perspective.
“Sometimes different than bullying perhaps when we’re looking at discrimination issues, it’s because we are evaluating reasonable against what the majority would do, rather than reasonable against what is best for all of them,” Crookham-Johnson says.
Edwards, Crookham-Johnson and Miller all voted against Proesch’s decision. Proesch says the parent who sought the action can now take the issue to district court if they want to continuing seeking to get the New Hampton School Board’s decision overturned.
Audio: State Board of Education discussion on New Hampton choir. 15:46.