Passions ran high at the Salt Lake Board of Education meeting Tuesday as a Jewish student explained her objections to taking part in a predominantly Christian West High holiday concert.
Others protested that such efforts are attempts to eliminate Christmas and water down a traditionally top-notch music program."It's not a Jewish vs. Christian issue," said Rachel Bauchman, a sophomore who sings soprano with the West High A Cappella choir. "I respect every religion. But how can it be a culturally diverse program when 10 out of 10 songs are praising Jesus?"
Bauchman and her father, Eric, contend that the concert selections violate student constitutional rights by blurring the separation between church and state guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The school board took no action after hearing some heated charge and countercharge comments from a few speakers, as well as calmer statements from other people.
But board president Mary Jo Rasmussen said the board will discuss the issue at a future meeting and hinted that the group was receptive to a recommendation by one speaker, Nano Podolsky, who urged the board to create a task force to research and draft a proposed district policy on the topic and have it ready for the board's review by July 3.
Podolsky is a West High parent and president of the United Jewish Federation of Utah.
Larry Goldsmith, co-chairman of the Utah region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, offered that group's help in trying to find a solution.
Rachel Bauchman said she respects Jesus as a historical figure but does not want to worship him. A primarily Christian musical program does not belong in the public schools, she told the school board, adding, "I'm not trying to take Christmas away from anybody."
Later, she said that the two Hanukkah songs that had been added after she and her father originally objected are not truly Hanukkah songs. One is a seasonal song referring to Hanukkah but is not particularly religious in nature, while the other is an Israeli folk tune, she said.
But another choir member, Matthew Bunker, defended music teacher Richard Torgerson and suggested that purging songs with any religious overtones from holiday concerts would reduce the selections to "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" levels rather than the vocally challenging and more sophisticated music traditionally associated with West's choir.
Another choir member, Shannon Hale, also defended Torgerson's musical choices. "Mr. Torgerson has created a diverse program," Hale said. She also praised the overall quality of the music program and his relationship with students. "He has diligently worked to make it a positive experience."
Preston Naylor said in written comments that trying to to eliminate all religious themes from the educational process is "not only ludicrous but literally impossible" because these are contained in many art forms.
"The elementary schools in this district have bent over backwards to be sensitive to people of the Jewish faith. Hanukkah is recognized, celebrated and discussed. So is Santa. The birth of Jesus and nativity have been eliminated. I could choose to be offended, but I will not!" Naylor wrote.
Yet another speaker, former legislator Kevin Watt, strongly protested the West High program and said he supported the Bauchmans completely.
"I object to using my tax dollars for somebody else's theological thrill," Watt said. "It is wrong to do it even if the amount of money was a single penny."
At this point, the West High choir will present its holiday concert series as scheduled.