Exploring a Global View of Religious Music


Emily M. Mercado, Louisiana State University



Studies indicate that music teachers are conflicted about programming religious music (Gianuzzi, 2014; Luke, 2004). In recent federal court cases, religious music is a point of contention in education (S.D. v. St. Johns Country School District, 2009; Stratechuk v. Board of Education, 2009; Nurre v. Whitehead, 2009). While there are clear laws and policies to guide teachers such as the Establishment Clause and The Lemon Test (Lewis, 2002), the current political climate surrounding these policies is cause for increased awareness. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made comments that may be interpreted as threatening the separation of church and state. For example, she stated the need to focus on “greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach…the system of education in the country” (Stanton, 2017). With policies somewhat open to interpretation, how should music teacher educators advise pre-service teachers on programming religious music?


Past court cases show that context matters and that teachers will need to consider the cultural make-up of their classroom and community when programming music, which can result in positive outcomes (Abril, 2009; Shaw, 2015). However, additional researchers indicated that only focusing on the cultural backgrounds of the particular students in one classroom inhibits learning about other cultures from around the world (Rohan, 2011; Shaw, 2016). When the topic of world religion enters the music classroom, new teachers often find themselves in unfamiliar territory. For example, Green (2017) compared sacred and secular Jewish music, which are somewhat defined by languages, geographic location, and ethnic groups. So while a Ladino song such as Hamisha Asar, may not be considered a sacred piece in the Sephardic Jewish tradition, when the background of the piece is introduced, religion will become a part of the conversation.


The purpose this session is to (1) offer suggestions on how to address the topic of religious music from a laws and policy perspective, then (2) facilitate group discussion on best practices and research related to fostering a global perspective while engaging with religious music. This purpose aligns with the conference theme as it looks to the future of incorporating diverse repertoire in the music classroom. More specifically, this presentation directly addresses the goals outlined by the members of the Policy ASPA: increasing awareness through analysis, advocacy, and engagement related to policy that pertains to teachers, administrators, and teacher educators in music education.


In a world that seems to grow more divisive, how do we adhere to the policies, respect the cultures in our classroom, and teach acceptance and understanding? One extreme may be eliminating religious music form the curriculum, while another is ignoring the separation of church and state and only programming music from the dominant perspective. Perhaps there exists a middle ground that involves programming and understanding music from multiple world religious perspectives. This session will aim to foster an exchange of ideas exploring the possibility of a middle ground in regards to religious music in the public schools.




Abril, C. R. (2009). Responding to culture in the instrumental music programme: A teacher’s journey. Music Education Research, 11(1), 77–91.

Doe v. Aldine Independent School District, 563 F. Supp. 883 (S.D. Tex. 1982).

Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, 70 F. 3d 402 (5th Cir. 1995).

Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 619 F.2d 1311 (8th Cir. 1980).

Gianuzzi, D.P. Policies, perceptions of policies, and teacher attitudes: Their influence on the use of sacred music in public high schools (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI 3581037)

Green, N. (2017, March). Interfaith/Intercultural programming: Jewish choral music from the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions. Session presented at the American Choral Directors Association National Conference, Minneapolis,  MN.

Lewis, T.T. (2002). The Bill of Rights. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

Luke, A.M. (2004). Religious freedom in public education: The relationship between high school educators’ first amendment knowledge and their opinions about religion in public schools (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI 3144889)

Nurre v. Whitehead, 580 F.3d 1087 (9th Cir. 2009).

S.D. v. St. Johns County School District, 632 F. Supp. 2d 1085 (M.D. Fla. 2009).

Rohan, T. (2011). Teaching music, learning culture: The challenge of culturally responsive music education (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10523/1865

Shaw, J. (2015). “Knowing their world”: Urban choral music educators’ knowledge of context. Journal of Research in Music Education, 63(2), 198-223.

Shaw, J. (2016). “The music I was meant to sing”: Adolescent choral students’ perceptions of culturally responsive pedagogy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64(1), 45-70.

Stratechuk v. Board of Education, 587 F.3d 597 (3rd Cir. 2009).

Stanton, Z. (2017, January 15). How Betsy DeVos used God and Amway to take over Michigan politics. Politico Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/betsy-dick-devos-family-amway-michigan-politics-religion-214631