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The Night Sandra Sang “Ave Maria”

Ralph E. Shaffer: As word spread that the trustees had forced her to change her selection, 'censorship' and 'freedom of religion' became the catch words in the press and on talk radio.

With the advent of a pro-evangelical presidential administration, it is likely that Donald Trump's second appointment to the Supreme Court will lead to a rapid reversal of the protection of religious liberty that has been the court's position since the days of Earl Warren. God will return to the schoolhouse in a very sectarian way. Religious issues that have found school boards ruling against acts that in some way bring religion onto the campus will soon be viewed in a different light by the right wing majority that will, perhaps soon, dominate the court.

Singing Ave Maria

In 2010, the high court refused to overturn a ban on a performance of “Ave Maria” at a high school graduation. When I attended Washington Elementary School in Lynwood in the 1930s, my classmate Sandra would sing that song at the annual talent show. We didn't think twice about it then. We just marveled at that beautiful voice, a voice that eventually found a place on Broadway. Today, Sandra couldn't sing "Ave Maria." In a few years that will change as the court attains a conservative majority.

But should the song have been banned by a liberal court? Here, in a fictional but very real look at the subject, is a realistic scenario that ought to make liberals and conservatives alike ponder that question.

Everyone knew this would be no typical, boring Sierra Vista school board meeting. For a week the local press had run news stories, editorials, opinion pieces and, especially, those letters to the editor. The letters sometimes cross the line in their personal attacks on proponents and the opposition, but the editor enforced the rule of civility as much as possible, deleted offensive words or phrases, and refused to print the more venomous submissions.

Social media on the Internet, however, had virtually no rules. Anonymity encouraged the most vicious attacks from either side, although most of the grating comments came from those who disagreed with the school trustees' initial decision to ban the singing of 'Ave Maria' at the high school talent show.

When Sandra, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde with a golden voice, volunteered to sing at the talent show everyone was elated. Most residents had heard her sing on many occasions- at church, as a soloist with the school choir, even on local television on rare occasions. Her voice was soprano, her range unbelievable for a teenager, her pitch perfect. Everyone anticipated that she would sing a pop tune, one of the current love songs we heard on the radio. A ballad rather than one of the more raucous songs currently popular.

Instead, she said she wanted to sing 'Ave Maria." No one had heard her sing that before and those who knew the melody and lyrics looked forward to her performance at the talent show,

There was, however, an objection from a parent. Two of the Saunders children - a senior and a sophomore - had successfully auditioned for the program and, when their parents asked who else would be performing, mentioned Sandra first. In response to an innocuous question about Sandra's song the kids replied that she would be singing 'Ave Maria.' That's when the rhubarb started.

Mr. Saunders, whose polite but firm hostility to organized religion was not concealed, knew the song and its religious meaning and sent a letter to the board informing the trustees that the inclusion of a song of that nature on the program at a public school was a violation of church-state separation. Saunders success as a lawyer was well known in Sierra Vista and the board members, already aware of court rulings on religious trappings at school events, had ordered the talent show committee to inform Sandra that she would have to sing something else. A disappointed Sandra, also a senior, agreed with reluctance.

As word spread that the trustees had forced her to change her selection, 'censorship' and 'freedom of religion' became the catch words in the press and on talk radio.

As word spread that the trustees had forced her to change her selection, 'censorship' and 'freedom of religion' became the catch words in the press and on talk radio. With the talent show scheduled for a date only two weeks after the auditions, if the board was to reverse its initial action the opposition had to move quickly. It did.

A massive, well organized petition campaign forced the board to call an emergency meeting within a week of the trustee's ban on 'Ave Maria.' On Monday night, four days before Friday's talent show, the trustees reassembled in the same high school auditorium where the talent show was to be presented. While the board normally met in a small room at the superintendent's building, it was obvious to all that only the auditorium would hold the enormous crowd that would assemble to demand that the board allow Sandra to sing whatever she chose to sing.

The board meeting was scheduled for 8 to allow commuters time to get home, dine and get to the auditorium. By seven a crowd was beginning to take seats inside and an equally large number of concerned parents and other citizens congregated outside, conversing in small groups.

Not all were just engaged in conversation. The confrontational nature of the event was evident as people neared the entrance to the meeting hall. Most evident were those protesting the board's decision. A very vocal prayer group stood where the walkway to the main entrance joined the sidewalk, their leader praying aloud for the souls of trustees, with shouts of "Hallelujah" coming from the circle of hand holders.

Neatly dressed, middle class representatives from Americans United, a 'keep religion in its place' organization, distributed neatly printed flyers supporting the board's decision and urging the trustees to stand firm, with the threat of a lawsuit raised at the bottom of the leaflet should the board reverse itself.

Across the walkway from Americans United stood another well dressed, civil group of protesters, this one composed of readers of the National Review. Like their counterparts across the walkway, they passed out printed sheets, theirs citing court cases, the Federalist Papers, and the First Amendment to support Sandra's right to sing the controversial song.

In contrast to the civil approach of those two intellectual advocates from opposing sides were the numerous, boisterous foes of the board's decision. Some of those invoked the name of God but they weren't praying for the souls of the trustees.

"Those who ban the song will rot in Hell!" read one protester's sign.

"America is a Christian nation, not an atheist one" was printed on both sides of a sandwich board carried by an elderly gentleman.

Large numbers in the crowd waiting outside voluntarily joined others in "God Bless America" when one of the many women present began singing it.

A more rabid speaker, who may have been a minister but no one actually knew him so no one was sure, brought his own soapbox. Standing on it and orating with a powerful voice that commanded attention, he viciously attacked "the atheists, the agnostics, the non-believers who would drive God from the schoolroom and prevent this little Christian girl from singing of her love of Jesus."

Opponents of the board's decision weren't the only fanatical advocates in attendance. A few scruffy-looking college age kids encircled one of their own, who stood on a picnic table outside the auditorium and attacked the religious protesters and the board, the latter for allowing religion on the campus in even a very limited way. "Opiate of the people" seemed to be his theme in attacking religion, blaming it as a refuge from the real problems of society, a means of diverting the public from genuine efforts to eliminate the ills of the country. At times in his oration he singled out anti-board protesters and acrimoniously scolded them.

In addition to the more vociferous protesters, there were little arguments ensuing at several spots on the auditorium's front lawn as Sandra's supporters cornered American United members who were distributing their flyers. At one point one zealot grabbed a handful of pro-board leaflets from the hands of a distributor and, with a cigarette lighter, set them on fire as he dumped the burning leaflets into a convenient metal garbage can. With the flames shooting out of the top of the can, someone shouted "Burn in Hell, you damned atheists!"

Those attempting to enter the auditorium were confronted by unfriendly looking, husky men who demanded to know, "Which side are you on?" before they stood aside to let those supporting Sandra enter. People reluctant to state their preference, or who supported Sandra but didn't think the thugs had the right to ask that question, were subjected to taunts before being allowed to enter.

Long before eight the hall was full and an overflow crowd stood on the steps outside where closed circuit television sets were quickly set up, the superintendent having anticipated such a need. The audio-visual office had the equipment working minutes before the meeting started, thereby avoiding any riotous action by those standing outside.

Just before the meeting was to begin the noisy crowd outside the auditorium momentarily hushed as a beautiful, blonde girl came up the walkway to the door. The husky guys who had blocked the entry of others respectfully stepped aside as Sandra, accompanied by her parents, entered the hall.

Promptly at eight the president of the board called the meeting to order.

The meeting began in an orderly fashion, with the president summarizing the action taken by the board regarding Sandra's appearance at the talent show. He then called on the board's attorney to explain the legal implications, which was done amid some muffled sounds of disapproval when the attorney cited Supreme Court cases in support of the board's decision to ban the song.

One onlooker was more vocal than the other objectors, rising from his seat and voicing brief words of disapproval. On several occasions his negative comments were greeted with a slight amount of applause.

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One of the members of the National Review group arose to present the argument for reversal of the board's decision. In erudite, well phrased sentences he laid out the legal case for allowing Sandra to sing 'Ave Maria.' His references were largely taken from dissenting opinions on the high court or from obscure federal judges who had ruled in favor of prayer, manger displays or other religious oriented activities on school grounds. In most cases he had to admit, in response to questions from one of the trustees, that the judge often had been overruled by a higher court. But not in all of these decisions.

The president next opened the meeting to comments from the floor.

Without waiting to be recognized by the chair, the feisty guy who had been making loud comments throughout the proceedings rose and in a powerful voice stilled the chatter in the room. Looking directly at the spokesmen for Americans United he literally spewed his venom in their direction.

"This is a Christian country, and we run the schools. For two hundred years the schoolhouse was a place to learn moral values along with a faith in God. Then this minority imposed their will on the rest of us with the help of the Supreme Court.

"I say they have no right to stop this girl from singing about Jesus and Mary. Her First Amendment right to practice her religion is the first right the Founding Fathers wrote into those ten amendments. She has the right to profess her religious beliefs. This district had prohibited the kids from having a Christian club on campus. The administrators said that wearing religious tee shirts violated the dress code. Kids are told they can't pray before a test, that the football team can't join in prayer before a game. A boy was reprimanded for kneeling after he scored a touchdown.

"It's time to draw the line. If a small group of dissenters don't want to hear a beautiful girl sing a heart-warming song, they should stay home. No one is required to attend the talent show. No one will be disciplined because of absence from the program. Her right to exercise her religious belief trumps any strained interpretation of the Constitution.

"Stay home if you don't want to hear her sing.

"I have this word for these non-believers, these agnostics, these sacrilegious atheists. GOD WILL SMITE YOU IF YOU PERSIST IN DESTROYING OUR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, YOU WILL ROT IN HELL FOR YOUR EVIL WAYS. REPENT, REPENT NOW, BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. JEHOVAH, STRIKE THESE DEVILS DEAD!"

The crowd was in a turmoil as he finished. The chairman unsuccessfully attempted to restore order, repeatedly pounding his gavel. Amid the turmoil, as the police who were just outside the entrance began to move into the hall and some onlookers began pushing and shoving those they thought were on the other side, an old man with a white cane and dark wrap-around glasses, elbowed his way through the crowd to where Sandra sat. He quickly spoke something in her ear, inaudible to others because of the growing din in the room. Sandra nodded in agreement, stood, and edged her way through the increasingly angry mob and reached the piano, as did the nearly blind man. With Sandra's help he stood on the piano bench, somewhat shaky but secure, holding her hand. With the other arm he forcefully struck his cane against a piece of sheet metal hanging from the ceiling, a stage prop for when plays were presented here.

The resounding roar startled the crowd, and in the moment of silence that followed, before the partisans could resume their bickering and display of anger, he shouted with a voice even more commanding than that of the feisty instigator of the turmoil.

"STOP! We are here because of Sandra's desire to sing a song. She may not be allowed to sing it at the talent show, but she is going to sing it now, for the benefit of the trustees, who must make that decision, and for you, regardless of which side you are on. This is why we are here! Listen to Sandra."

The crowd remained quiet as the old man, with Sandra's help, stepped off the bench, sat at the keyboard, and played the introduction to 'Ave Maria.' Then, as Sandra began to sing, a calm seemed to come over the assemblage. The girl with the golden voice sang with a quality that exceeded even the beauty that she had always displayed. Those standing took their seats, awed by what they heard. Wives took their husbands' hands. A few reached for tissue to wipe away a tear. Even those from Americans United were touched by the voice, the intensity with which she sang. They realized that each syllable was coming from her heart.

When she finished there was no applause. Those present treated her rendition as though it were something very special that applause would tarnish. After a few moments, the board president went on with the meeting. He didn't bother calling it back to order. There was no disorder. only silence.

"Before we proceed to a vote the rules, as outlined earlier, indicated that we would allow official spokespersons for each side to make a closing argument to the trustees, to be followed by the spokesperson for the other side. Who speaks for those endorsing the board's position?"

Mr. Saunders started to rise, but before he was out of his seat the old man with the white cane quickly stood.

"Mr. Saunders knows me well. I have long been a member of Americans United. Perhaps he will let me speak for those of us on that side?"

Saunders nodded and sat down. The old man, his thinning white hair a bit disheveled from his acrobatics on the piano bench, moved haltingly to the microphone,which fortunately was nearby. He didn't look at the trustees, sitting on the stage above him. Instead, he addressed his remarks to the audience, which was so silent that the sound of traffic on the highway out front could be heard, though not so loudly as to interfere with what he was about to say.

"Friends, few of you know me but I have lived in this town for over fifty years. My children, and grandchildren have gone through this school system. We are proud of it, of the teachers, the administrators... " and he paused a brief moment as he turned toward the board members... "and the trustees, in whom we have great confidence.

"I have been an agnostic all my adult life. I have fought to keep our schools secular, a place where a child could feel at home regardless of his or her religion... or no religion at all. The courts have been forced to deal with the matter of religion in the classroom or on the school grounds time and again. We, on either side, are not always happy with their decisions. And if we disagree with them we work to change the law or have the decision reversed.

"Mr, Saunders is legally correct. The singing of a religious song could properly be considered a violation of a court decision. Had the board allowed Sandra to sing, a judge might have blocked her appearance with a writ. No one, not even Americans United, would be happy with that because we know it would cause bitter feelings that would distract from the wonderful work of our schools.

"Sandra has now sung the song, from the stage where she would have sung it had the trustees permitted her to do that. More adults in this community heard her tonight than would have heard her at the talent show. She was truly center stage this evening, even more so than she would have been on stage next Friday.

"I've been an agnostic since I was Sandra's age. I cherish my right to be free from religious indoctrination, whatever form it takes. But listening to Sandra sing that serene melody, whose lyrics I could not understand since they were in Latin, I was moved by the beauty of her voice, as you all were. Sandra did not impose her religion on me. She gave me a feeling of comfort.

"Here, tonight, before many of her classmates, in a room filled with the parents of her friends and of those classmates who, unfortunately may not know her, she has won our hearts. We've heard the song and no one is the worse for it. Nay, we are all the better because of that glorious voice we just heard.

"And with that, Sandra tells me she will not sing 'Ave Maria' at the talent show, that she will sing another song that she loves, and which we all know. Sandra will sing 'America the Beautiful.' "

There was a slight rustle from the crowd as the rapt audience seemed to express approval of her decision.

"With that, Mr. President, I ask that the board take no further action on the matter. Sandra has sung, Sandra will sing,... and we will all enjoy the talent show."

A roar of approval came from most of the members of the audience. When the feisty guy tried to protest he was shouted down by those who earlier in the evening had applauded his snide remarks. The president rapped his gavel and declared the meeting adjourned.

As the audience filed out of the auditorium, even Mr. Saunders was heard faintly humming a tune. It was 'Ave Maria.'

Ralph E. Shaffer