Today I presented a talk, "A Convergence of Ethnomusicology and Jurisprudence: Contextual views on whether performing sacred choral music endorses religion in U.S. public schools," at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Los Angeles. This talk is based on my recent article published in the Journal of the Society for American Music.
I provide commentary on a 1997 court case, Bauchman v. West High School, concerning the performance and study of sacred vocal music in a public school curriculum. I argue that the doctrine of "endorsement," first articulated by Sandra Day O'Connor in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), has much in common with an ethnomusicological approach to finding musical meaning in the context of performance. It is not sufficient to study the content of a musical work and declare that this content automatically promotes religion. Only a case-by-case examination of the context of performance can show when performance of a certain work promotes religion.