Atheist group brags of ending 'unconstitutional' teaching of Christian heritage music in black spiritual tradition at Kansas middle school

The Freedom from Religion Foundation called these lessons in historic, American Christian music from the black worship tradition an attempt "to convert" students to Christianity.

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
A 6th grade music teacher at a public middle school in Goddard, Kansas came under fire for teaching music in the Christian cultural tradition. The songs the Freedom from Religion Foundation took issue with were the gospel song "Praise His Holy Name" and the African-American spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," which they claimed had no historical significance outside of the church.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation group, which seeks to remove Christian cultural influence in schools and government, received a complaint from a parent who objected to their child learning Christian songs in their music class and took action "to ensure that the teacher wouldn't be allowed to proselytize any further."

The foundation appears happy with the result of their efforts to remove lessons in American black spiritual music from the curriculum, saying in a release that "Students in the Goddard Unified School District in Kansas are no longer being forced to sing worship music."

The music teacher taught the students music from the Christian worship tradition, namely the gospel song from celebrated black composer Keith Hampton "Praise His Holy Name" and the African American spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel." The teacher also taught the context of the songs, explaining the Christian stories that the songs were based on.

"Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" was widely sung by students at the historically black Hampton College, which their choir sang on tour. It was popularized by celebrated singer, actor, and black activist Paul Robeson.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, founded by atheist feminist Anne Nicol Gaylor in 1978, called these lessons in historic, American Christian music from the black worship tradition an attempt "to convert" students to Christianity.

"It’s not a teacher’s job to convert a student to their religion, no matter what tools they use to do so," said Gaylor's daughter Annie Laurie Gaylor, the current co-president along with former minister Dan Barker, who lost his faith in Christianity in 1983 and gave up evangelizing. 

The group told the school that the teaching of Christian heritage through song was in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Many parents picking up their children from school on Wednesday told KWCH that they were either supportive of the music lessons or didn't care.

Goddard is a town of 1,700 people served by four Christian churches. More than 50 percent of the residents are religious and part of a Christian faith, with the largest percentage of the faithful, 15.6 percent, identifying as Catholic. Less than 1.5 percent of residents identify with Eastern faiths or Islam, while the rest of the residents are Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mormon, or are affiliated with another Christian faith. The school serves 6,200 students and is a rapidly growing school district. 

A legal fellow with the Foundation sent a letter to the school superintendent, Justin Henry, who has served in that post since 2011, in late November, demanding that lessons in Christian worship culture be abandoned entirely. This came after a complaint was lodged with the not-for-profit atheist group by a parent who said "that the 6th-grade music teacher was teaching students essentially several Christian worship songs in class and had taught the students a lesson on the Bible story of Daniel."

"The parent was upset because their child’s public school teacher should not be teaching them about religion in a devotional manner in public school," Lawrence said.

"There is no need for a public intermediate school choral program to select religious worship music for students, and it is plainly unconstitutional for a public school choir teacher to teach students Bible lessons," Samantha Lawrence said on behalf of the foundation.

"The district’s choir programs must focus on teaching secular music and lessons, not religious devotional music and bible stories," Lawrence told the superintendent. They claimed that the evangelical music was taught in a "devotional, religious manner" and claimed that the school "demonstrated favoritism towards religion over nonreligion."

In response, Henry said that they would handle the matter internally, and promised to inform the teacher about the violation of the First Amendment in teaching Christian music. "Since receiving your email on Nov. 29, we have had the opportunity to provide the teacher with this information and will be planning a meeting with all district choir instructors to ensure they understand the information," Henry said.

Lawrence claimed that teaching songs from the Christian tradition was "coercion." She also said that the music could only be taught if there was "a legitimate secular purpose for teaching the songs," but that in the view of the foundation, these songs have no "educational value besides being just devotional songs."

"By coercing sixth-grade students to sing overtly Christian worship music in its choral program, the district demonstrates favoritism towards religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths," she said, before saying that the public school in the heavily Christian town was wrong to "favor" Christianity, despite it being the cultural heritage of the majority of the town's residents.

"This favoritism towards Christianity needlessly alienates all students and families, such as our complainant and their child, who do not subscribe to Christianity," Lawrence said. 

"FFRF is glad the district was able to change its tune to one that respects the Constitution," the foundation said.

The Challenger Intermediate School and the Goddard School District were reached for comment.
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