The all-star choir visiting from Europe was called “Voices of Heaven” but members were told by a Michigan school district not to sing sacred songs while on campus, leaving the artists bewildered and district parents enraged that the German singers would return home with such an impression of the United States.
The order came recently from Supt. Charles Breiner of the Howell School District in Michigan just as the Eberbach, Germany, choir arrived for its scheduled concert at Howell High School.
In a report in the Livingston County Press, parents said Breiner’s administration had ordered the choir to leave out music deemed too religious.
The group of singers had been brought to the district through the efforts of Kelli Falls, a choir teacher at Three Fires Middle School. The 62-voice choir included singers ages 13-20 and came through a program of the Blue Lakes Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Mich.
Officials told the local newspaper that the censorship was imposed to bring the program into line with a policy of Howell Public Schools that limits the amount of sacred music in any performance.
“I don’t know if I would call it ‘scaled back’ or ‘censored’ – and that word scares the heck out of me,” Donna Hoornstra, a parent of two Howell choir students said. She hosted two members of Voices of Heaven during their recent visit.
“I’m appalled, I’m embarrassed and I’m ashamed,” she said.
She said one of the choir members was distraught by the ruling.
“He felt discriminated against in our community,” she told the newspaper.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan confirmed that including religious music in a high school’s choir program is allowed.
“The courts have said that having some religious music in serious choral concerts in public schools is OK, as long as the purpose is not to promote religion,” said Michael J. Steinberg, of the ACLU.
“That evening (before the concert), we were all sitting at (the) kitchen table having dinner, and one of the two choir members who were staying with us said, ‘I’m very upset,'” Hoornstra related. “I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘Our director was told by your Mr. Breiner that there was to be no sacred music.’ My mouth dropped open.”
“I told him that this is not what our community believes,” she said.
The superintendent didn’t respond to newspaper requests for comment.
But other parents said the choir members staying with them also were disturbed.
“They were really disappointed,” Diane Schenkel told the newspaper. “A few of them said that this was the first and only school where they had been asked to do that. Some of the kids had solos in some of the songs that they couldn’t sing.”
The choir arrived through a program run by the Blue Lakes Fine Arts Camp, which not only trains U.S. student-artists and sends them on European tours each year, but also arranges for top talent from outside the United States to deliver performance tours here.
The Voices of Heaven, which was founded in 2001, was one of 11 musical groups from Asia and Europe to visit Michigan this year through the program.
Now a parents group says it’s time for Breiner to resign.
“We are outraged at Mr. Breiner’s most recent antics. He has apparently moved from promoting a gay agenda to embarrassing our community internationally,” said Vicki Fyke, a spokesperson for the Livingston Organization for Values in Education committee.
“We have endured two years of controversy with Mr. Breiner as the common denominator to each incident and feel the community would be better served if Mr. Breiner would simply resign,” she said yesterday.
Fyke also noted that Breiner had ruled that the Scouting programs that meet in district buildings would not be allowed to send information home with students at the beginning of a school year, as they have in the past and as other groups were allowed to do.
The parents’ group also noted that in the past Breiner had formally recognized the hanging of a “gay pride” flag in the school, but banned the national motto, “In God We Trust,” from school walls.
The camp says its international exchange program was begun in 1969, and promotes “peace and understanding through the universal language of the arts.”
Since its inception, nearly 30,000 young Europeans, Asians and American artists have exchanged performances.
Fyke said the decisions by Breiner, finishing with the censorship of the concert, are part of an “in-your-face hostility” to community values.
“We are also embarrassed for Ms. Falls, the Three Fires choir director, who planned this diverse event,” Fyke said. “Mr. Breiner continues to throw his staff under the bus.
“This latest action is an embarrassment to our entire community and to those that have worked so hard in the name of diversity. If having a youth choir come from Germany to perform isn’t diversity, then I don’t know what diversity means.”
Steinberg said much of traditional choral music is religious in nature, and alternatives are limited.