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Atheist Groups Sue Public School District Over Nativity Scene in Annual Christmas Spectacular Play

( [email protected] ) Oct 09, 2015 02:11 PM EDT
A public school's annual Christmas Spectacular play has prompted a federal lawsuit from atheist groups the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana, who argue the play's inclusion of Jesus' birth violates the separation of church and state.
Students perform at Concord High School's annual Christmas Spectacular. YouTube

A public school's annual Christmas Spectacular play has prompted a federal lawsuit from atheist groups the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana, who argue the play's inclusion of Jesus' birth violates the separation of church and state.

The South Bend Tribune reports that Concord High School in Indiana has held a Christmas Spectacular every Christmas for the last several decades. Every performance of the play, of which there were five last year, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live Nativity Scene and a scriptural reading from the Bible. During this segment, students at the High School portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and angels."

In August, the Wisconsin-based FFRF sent a letter to the school district stating that having the Nativity scene in the school-sponsored event is illegal and inappropriate. Because their requests went unheeded, the group joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana in filing a lawsuit against the district on October 7th.

The FFRF said in a statement:"Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue in the complaint that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, 'well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the High School and the School Corporation, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."

The atheist group added that the organization is suing to "ensure that nonreligious and non-Christian students are able to fully participate in their school's winter concert."

During a school board meeting in September, District Superintendent John Trout defended the nativity scene: "For more than 30 years, the Spectacular has been an important part of the Concord High School holiday experience. It will continue to do so," he said.

Trout emphasized that the school will not engage in a "public media fight," according to the South Bend Tribune, and noted that participation in the Nativity scene is voluntary and the scene is rehearsed after school.

Another Elkhart resident who participated in the meeting, Robyn Radford, also argued that the nativity scene provides historical context to the holiday season.

"When you get to the part of the Nativity scene, it is the true historical part of what Christmas is, and that is celebrated in the United States of America," she said. "He came and he changed history. It's a fact. If you take that away, you have taken out the only educational portion of this program ... if you take that away, you are left with snow."

The FFRF and ACLU's efforts to remove Christianity from the public sphere are the latest in a string of censorship attempts and encroachment on religious freedom in the U.S.

Last summer, a Kansas school was forced to take down a portrait of Jesus Christ after the FFRA  sent the district a letter warning that the display was "an egregious violation of the First Amendment."

This year, a handful of public schools across the country, like in Arizona and Florida, have banned Bibles amid public outcry, and one Colorado school even banned students from using the words "Lord," "God," and "Jesus."

In defending its commitment to censoring Christianity, the FFRF says the courts have been clear: Religious symbols don't belong in public schools.  

"The Supreme Court has stressed the importance of protecting public school students from these types of messages," FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel wrote.