FRENCHTOWN, N.J. (AP) - All Olivia Turton wanted to do was sing one of her favorite songs at her school talent show.
So when school administrators prohibited Olivia from singing "Awesome God," saying the lyrics amounted to preaching, her parents sued, saying their daughter's First Amendment rights had been violated.
On Monday, a federal court judge agreed, finding that the song was "private speech" by a student and not a message conveyed by the school.
U.S. District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson said the Frenchtown Elementary School talent show was open to the entire Frenchtown community and was not part of the school curriculum. Participation was not mandatory and no grades were handed out to those who took part.
The event, hosted by a local pastor, the judge noted, took place after school.
Olivia, now in fourth grade, plans to sing the song in the next talent show, her attorney, Demetrios K. Stratis, said yesterday.
Her mother, Mary Ann Turton, was thrilled when she learned of the federal court ruling, handed down Monday in Trenton.
"We're really excited, thrilled for the victory," Turton said.
It has been more than a year since Olivia proposed singing "Awesome God" by the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins at the "Frenchtown Idol," the school's version of American Idol.
She chose the song after she couldn't find a karaoke version of "Part of Your World" from the film The Little Mermaid. So she chose "Awesome God," a song on a children's CD she owned.
"She loves the song," Stratis said. "She chose it because she liked it."
But the school disagreed and said Olivia would be proselytizing. Officials said she couldn't sing it. One verse of the song has these lyrics:
Our God is an awesome God,
He reigns from heaven above,
With wisdom, pow'r and love,
Our God is an awesome God.
"To suggest that a little 9-year-old is proselytizing is ludicrous," Stratis said.
In her 26-page ruling, Wolfson wrote that the song could not be considered school-sponsored speech.
"The speech at issue here - a song selected and performed by an individual student - was the private speech of a student and not the message conveyed by the school itself," the judge said.
Olivia won the backing of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Alliance legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco said the ruling showed that religious speech should not be treated as second-class.
"The effect of this court decision is that it permanently prohibits this school from discriminating against religious speech within the context of its school talent shows," Tedesco said.
Russell Weiss, the attorney representing the school, did not return a telephone call to comment on whether he would appeal.
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