The latest development in the continuing battle between free speech and the Establishment clause is a lawsuit brought by a high school senior against her school in Everett, Wash.
Kathryn Nurre, 18, contends in a suit filed last Monday in U.S. District Court that the superintendent of her school district violated her free speech rights when he vetoed her wind ensemble’s graduation musical selection.
Nurre, a sax player, and the other 16 members of the ensemble had chosen an instrumental arrangement of Ave Maria. The Everett School District superintendent, Dr. Carol Whitehead, believed the selection had too overt a religious theme, despite having no lyrics. She changed the graduation piece to one by Gustav Holst.
Nurre claims she and her fellow musicians had no intention of making a religious statement. They chose the arrangement, which the ensemble had already performed in 2004, on its musical merits.
Ave Maria, for the Latin-challenged, is “Hail Mary,” the beginning of the annunciation in Luke 1, in which the Angel Gabriel informs Mary of her unique position among women. It is a traditional Catholic prayer, taken from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Scores of musicians have set the text to music since the early Renaissance.
Even assuming the audience at Nurre’s graduation was aware of the history behind the piece, the performance of an instrumental version is hardly a violation of the separation of church and state. Merely playing music inspired by a composer’s faith does not constitute imposing a particular faith (Catholicism?) on the audience.
As one who has participated in performances of Handel’s Messiah, I am not convinced hearing Biblical texts constitutes religious proselytizing. The point of a performance is the music and the inspiration behind it, not the religious message.
Whitehead clearly went too far in 86ing the ensemble’s choice of music. My prediction: the judge will find for the plaintiff and uphold musical sensibilities over paranoid administrative interpretation of the Constitution.