Indiana Senator Introduces Star Spangled Banner Bill

4:54 PM, Jan 2, 2012   |    comments
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Indiana-- Oh, say can you . . . sing?

And, more importantly, can you sing it the "right" way -- the way one Indiana lawmaker thinks the national anthem should be sung?

Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, has introduced a bill that would set specific "performance standards" for singing and playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at any event sponsored by public schools and state universities.

The law also would cover private schools receiving state or local scholarship funds, including vouchers.

Performers would have to sign a contract agreeing to follow the guidelines. Musicians -- whether amateur or professional -- would be fined $25 if it were deemed they failed to meet the appropriate standards.

But just what is appropriate? Would Jimi Hendrix's electric version make the grade? Are Christina Aguilera's vocal gymnastics a fineable offense?

That's unclear. What is and what is not "acceptable," according to Becker's bill, would be determined by the State Department of Education, with input from the Commission for Higher Education.

Becker said she would expect the guidelines to require that the national anthem be sung with the usual lyrics to the traditional melody -- "the way that we normally have it sung or heard throughout most of our state and our country."

Becker said she authored the bill after a constituent called her last spring upset about a school program in which the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner" were substituted or parodied in a way the caller found disrespectful. The senator said she herself had heard parody versions of the national anthem on television programs.

"Sometimes it's just done in a joking manner," she said, "but I don't think the national anthem is something we ought to be joking around with."

Becker stressed that her intent is to punish only those who make intentional changes -- not those who can't carry a tune.

The bill calls for schools to maintain audio recordings of all performances for two years and develop a procedure for dealing with complaints if a musician is alleged to have strayed from the approved lyrical or melodic guidelines.

"I don't think it would be very difficult for schools," Becker said. "You could record it on a lot of cellphones or like a small recording device (or) a CD."

Emily Acklin, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the department was not consulted about the bill and officials had not seen the draft filed by Becker.

"We really can't comment," Acklin said, "until we've seen the bill and heard from the person who filed it."

Becker said she did not expect the bill to require many resources from the Department of Education.

Setting standards for the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in schools probably does not violate the Constitution, said David Orentlicher, a professor of constitutional law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

But while the bill may not raise constitutional issues, Kenneth Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said it does raise policy questions.

"I'm not quite sure why, from a public policy standpoint, the General Assembly wants to be involved in specifying how any song should be sung," he said. "I don't think it's going to help us with our math and science."

The bill came as a surprise to Julia Vaughn, the policy director of Common Cause Indiana, who confessed to "being totally unaware of any crisis in national anthem singing."

At least two other states have standards for how the national anthem should be sung -- and not just in schools.

Massachusetts and Michigan both prohibit using "The Star-Spangled Banner" as dance music, an exit march or as part of a musical medley. Both states also ban adding "embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies." The law covers all public places, as well as theaters, movie theaters, restaurants and cafes.

In Michigan, where the law has been on the books since 1931, violators can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Florida law sets standards for the way people are supposed to act when the anthem is being performed.

Federal law also establishes a protocol for people listening to renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became the national anthem in 1931. People in the audience are to face the flag and place their right hand over their heart. Those wearing hats are to remove them and hold them over their hearts. If no flag is present, the audience is supposed to face the singer.

Those guidelines, however, do not specifically address melodic or lyrical improvisations.

The anthem, with music adapted from a British drinking song that spans one and a half octaves, "is extremely difficult to sing," said Henry H. Leck, director of choral activities at Butler University and the founder and artistic director of the Indianapolis Children's Choir.

Leck didn't want to wade into the debate over whether government should set standards for performing the anthem, but he acknowledged he's not a fan of the growing trend of singers "trying to make it unique" through improvisations and embellishments.

"You wouldn't add stuff to the American flag," he said. "There are certain, basic symbols of our country that should remain dignified."

When the ICC performs the national anthem -- it is a staple the group has sung at Colts and Pacers games, and will be performing Sunday for the inauguration of Mayor Greg Ballard -- the young singers work from an arrangement written by Leck.

"It is very straightforward and dignified," he said, "and follows the notation and lyrics adopted in 1931."

The choir's traditional rendition, Leck said, is always a big hit.  "Invariably," he said, "people come up and say 'thank you' for performing it with dignity."

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