Don Drakeman, Distinguished Research Professor at Notre Dame and a member of our Board of Advisors here at the Center for Law and Religion, wrote us recently to pass along this wonderful story about an obscure Christmas carol and our current, perhaps even more obscure, Establishment Clause jurisprudence. We take great pleasure in posting Don’s essay below, and in wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas, a peaceful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

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The holidays are a time for inspiring stories, and where better for Law and Religion Forum readers to turn than the Establishment Clause?

            During some family caroling, my daughter Cindy and her husband Richard introduced me to Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, a breathtakingly beautiful choral work.  This isn’t the famous version by Schubert you hear this time of year.  It’s the one by an obscure 20th century German composer, who spent most of WWII as a POW in Michigan.  The composition is completely different from the Schubert piece, and you’ll only recognize it if you get your music via NPR.

            Herr Biebl’s Ave Maria has become our inspirational story thanks to the 9th Circuit’s 2009 decision in Nurre v. Whitehead.  The seniors in the Jackson High School band were asked to choose what they wanted to play at graduation, and they picked an instrumental version of Biebl’s piece because they thought it would “showcase their talent.”  But the Biebl was nixed by the school administrators on the grounds that “the title and meaning…had religious connotations and would be easily identified as such by attendees.”  The 9th circuit backed them up, saying that the school’s action was an appropriate way to avoid an Establishment Clause problem. 

As far as I can see, the court’s decision required a series of miracles, each involving a degree of faith in the education of America’s youth that, as the KJV might say, “passeth all understanding.”

            The First Miracle:   That anyone was listening.  As a veteran high school band member, I can testify that the one thing the senior class is not doing when the band is playing is paying attention to the music.  The chance that any of them would think, “Wow, what a great piece!  I’ll check the program to see what it’s called” rounds to zero.  But, in this season of miracles, let’s say they did, and learned that it was named Ave Maria.

            The Second Miracle:  That the seniors had any idea what “Ave Maria” means.  I would like to share the judges’ faith that the seniors were well versed in Latin.  Yet, even if they were, Biebl’s effect would more likely be something like this:

            Football Captain:  Are you waving at the band?

Head Cheerleader:  Yes, they are playing that for me.  It’s called, “Hey, Mary.”  Didn’t you pay attention in AP Latin?

            Football Captain:  You have to stop skipping Latin Club meetings.  The Romans didn’t say “Hey,” they said, “Hail.”   This song is in honor of my “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in the championships.

High School football may inspire religious-like devotion, but at least so far, not enough to violate the Establishment Clause.

            The Third Miracle:  That there could possibly be a “primary effect” of advancing religion under the 9th Circuit’s use of the Lemon Test.  In other words, someone had to pay attention to the band, consult the program to learn the title, understand its meaning and religious significance, and then have a sufficiently religious experience that the instrumental rendition of the piece during graduation had a primary effect of advancing religion.  But, if you think about it, we don’t see people falling to their knees in prayer when they hear Josh Groban’s Ave Maria at the mall, and his version actually has words.  Besides, the students most likely to manifest this third miracle involving a traditional Catholic prayer are the Catholic ones, and they were more likely to be graduating from the large Catholic high school just five minutes away.

            Justice Alito called this decision “troubling” in his cert. denial dissent, but I prefer to see it as an inspiring story of faith in our educational system, where classically educated seniors listen to the wind ensemble with rapt attention, and find their religious beliefs profoundly deepened by the simple trigger words, Ave Maria.

            On that inspirational note, if you are seeking to brighten your Christmas season, look no further than Chanticleer’s rendition of Biebl’s Ave Maria on YouTube.  We have it on good authority that it will be a religious experience.

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Don would like to thank Cindy Drakeman and Richard Wanerman, who not only introduced him to Biebl, but who also appear on this year’s Grammy-nominated recording of the world premier of Kastalsky’s Requiem.  Since the Requiem includes the hymn Rock of Ages, he hopes the Grammys do not get any federal funding because the awards are being given in the 9th Circuit.

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