Church-state battle envelops school choirs

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As Christmas nears, two local school districts find themselves being drawn unwillingly into the battle against religion in the public square — but both districts maintain that allowing students to participate in traditional Christmas concerts does not violate anyone’s rights.

Choirs from Glacier, Flathead and Whitefish high schools will perform as planned today and Friday during the “Peace on Earth Community Christmas Celebration” despite receiving requests from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union of Montana to cancel.

The event in question is billed as a celebration of “the birth of our savior Jesus Christ,” featuring hundreds of nativity displays. The school choirs are listed among more than 10 musical performances at the two-day event at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kalispell.

Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Niki Zupanic, the Public Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, stated in their letters that public schools’ participation in the religious event suggests an appearance that they were endorsing or advancing a specific religious message or denomination.

“The main concern to us is to have public schools in this case taking their students essentially to a worship service. It’s factually no different then taking them to church and having them sing in a church choir,” Seidel said, representing the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The foundation was also involved in an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking removal of a Jesus statue located on national forest land on Big Mountain.

Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Darlene Schottle said during a phone interview Tuesday that the students’ participation does not mean the district endorses or promotes a religion or religious message. She said it is simply an opportunity for students to perform for the community at a public venue and does not equate to sponsorship.

The foundation sent a letter dated Nov. 29 and the ACLU emailed a letter dated Dec. 3 to both school districts.

The two legal groups have since taken the target off of Whitefish after learning the district’s Voce Primo choir is an extracurricular program that meets before and after school, but district Superintendent Kate Orozco had already issued a response to the foundation’s letter on Monday.

Orozco’s response expressed regret that people may have been led to believe the district endorsed a religion or religious denomination based on event advertisements and clarified that it did not.

During a phone interview Wednesday, Seidel said that the foundation’s primary concern is now Flathead and Glacier’s participation.

Choirs at both of those Kalispell high schools are part of the regular curriculum.

Seidel said it is not OK that public school students perform or rehearse in a church.

“There is no way to get away from the sheer religiosity of the place,” Seidel said.

Public schools may teach curriculum or music with religious themes when the purpose is to further a student’s understanding of the development of a culture or civilization, or to serve some other specific educational goal.

Schottle said complaints of this type are a regular occurrence as the holiday season nears. Schottle said when students perform for a group such as Rotary, or at a nursing home, for example, the school isn’t endorsing the group’s ideology or a business’s practices simply because of an event theme or venue.

“If any group, whether faith-based or not, wants our students to perform and it fits into our schedule, we quite frequently allow students to perform,” Schottle said.

Student participation in the Christmas event was voluntary for both districts. Since Flathead and Glacier are curricular programs, Seidel said voluntariness is irrelevant and would not hold up in court.

“You’re forcing children to forgo their constitutional right to a secular government in order to participate in a school activity. That’s coercion,” Seidel said. “Think of what it’s like to be in high school, to be part of a group. There’s immense pressure to not be different and then to say, ‘I can’t participate in this part of the program because I’m Jewish, or I’m the one atheist in this group.”

Zupanic agreed that students are put in a difficult position when asked to make such a decision.

“It creates personal conflict. Students want to fit in and they may be labeled as a troublemaker,” Zupanic said.

Schottle said the district believes the opportunity to “opt out” is sufficient. In part of Schottle’s formal responses to the foundation, she stated:

“One could interpret that by denying district students the opportunity to participate because of the Christian theme of the overall event might be in violation of the second half of the establishment clause, ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Students may ‘opt out’ of assignments and/or activities that might conflict with their belief system to assure that the district is not placing them in a situation they might find uncomfortable.”

Michele Reese, the public affairs director for the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agreed with Schottle’s stance and said the decision to perform at the free Christmas celebration has nothing to do with religion. Reese added that the event was open to the public  — whether a person is religious or not — and that many people will enjoy both the music and nativities on display for artistic rather than religious reasons.

“Some people collect nativities just because they are beautiful works of art, Christian or not,” Reese said.

Seidel argued that this does not diminish the overtly religious intention of the event.

“We would be incredibly disappointed if the schools decide to violate the Constitution,” Seidel said noting that if Flathead and Glacier go forward with participation, the foundation will talk to local complainants to see if anyone wants to take legal actions against the schools.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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