We've been here before. And we've heard the complaints before that the ACLU is the Grinch out to steal Christmas.
In truth, our work's purpose is the direct opposite of that. By protecting the right to religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment, the ACLU seeks to protect Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and every other religious holiday for people of faith, and to ensure that no one is forced to observe the holiday of a faith they do not practice.
The decision by public school educators at three Kalispell-area high schools to participate in a Christmas concert hosted by the Mormon Church on Dec. 5 is a direct violation of the First Amendment's "Establishment Clause," which mandates that government not impose religion. Public schools, as an arm of government, are subject to the First Amendment. Public schools cannot legally participate in church activities.
Make no mistake. This is a religious event, as evidenced by the flyers advertising it as a celebration of "The birth of our Savior Jesus Christ."
Administrators and choir directors at Whitefish, Glacier and Flathead High Schools have offered a number of reasons for why they think this is permissible, but none justifies their participation - and with it endorsement - of this religious event.
"We didn't like the poster and didn't approve it. That was the church, not us." Of course the church advertised its concert this way. The church's sole function is to practice, celebrate and promote its religious views. That is as it should be. The fault lies not with how the church advertised its concert, but with the public schools for participating in this religious event.
"Students can opt out. They don't have to participate." Opting out is not an acceptable alternative because it places students in the position of having to exert their religious rights when it is the schools' responsibility to protect them in the first place. No student should be made to feel like an outsider or ostracized from the school community because he or she does not want to participate in this concert. By forcing students to opt out, the schools are putting them in the position of being ridiculed by their peers or pressured into attending.
"Our choirs have sung in this concert for a number of years." Past participation is not an excuse for continuing the practice once it has been pointed out as unconstitutional. Certainly educators would never accept "I've gotten away with it before," as an excuse from an erring student.
"We also sing at nursing homes, fraternal club meetings and other functions." Those places and events are not religious in nature, and, thus, not subject to exclusion under the First Amendment. This is comparing apples to oranges.
"The songs we are singing are both secular and sacred." The songs are not the issue with this event. The sole issue is that it is a religious event sponsored by an area church and the schools should not be participating. There is no gray area here. Even if all the songs were secular, it would not excuse the schools from endorsing and participating in a Christian celebration.
"We aren't endorsing the religious views of the church, just singing in a community event." Participation is endorsement. According to repeated U.S. court rulings it is that simple.
"At Whitefish High School, our choir is a club. Participation is voluntary and there is no grading associated with it." This is perhaps the stickiest justification. While the choir may be a club, it is not a religious club. Students who choose to join the choir do so because they like to sing, not because they are Christian. That makes the club's participation in a Christian religious concert unacceptable. For a Mormon club, that would not be the case. Further, if this is the only way students can participate in a school choir, they are being placed in an untenable position. And lastly, while students can organize religious clubs as they see fit, staff are only legally allowed to monitor the club and its activities, not participate. A staff choir director is clearly participating in this event.
Rather than trying to justify their participation in the Mormon Church concert, educators at these schools should focus on providing secular opportunities for their students to perform and not endorsing religious events.
Religion's place is in the home and church, not our public schools.