ACLU objects to school choirs at church concert
Kalispell, Mont. • Three high school choirs in northwestern Montana plan to participate in Christmas concerts at the Mormon church in Kalispell despite protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Administrators from Flathead and Glacier high schools in Kalispell and Whitefish High School said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited the choirs to participate in the "Peace on Earth Community Christmas Celebration" on Thursday and Friday, and they plan to go.
The events are advertised as a celebration of the "birth of our savior Jesus Christ," featuring hundreds of nativity displays. The school choirs are among more than 10 musical performances scheduled.
The ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to the schools within the past week saying participation in the religious event gives the appearance the schools were endorsing or advancing a specific religious message or denomination, in violation of the First Amendment. The complaints are now aimed at only the Kalispell schools after the groups learned the Whitefish choir is an extracurricular program.
Andrew Seidel, staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the students are being coerced "to forgo their constitutional right to a secular government in order to participate in a school activity."
Kalispell Superintendent Darlene Schottle said student participation in the concerts is voluntary.
Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the ACLU, argued students are put in a difficult position when asked to make such a decision.
Schottle's formal response said, in part: "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."
Assistant Kalispell Superintendent Daniel Zorn said the school choirs have participated in the concert for the past five years and that it is not a worship service, but a community open house. He said the choirs will perform both secular and sacred songs chosen by the choir directors.
Seidel said if Flathead and Glacier go ahead with participation, the foundation will talk to local complainants to see if anyone wants to take legal action against the school district. Zupanic said the ACLU would not pursue litigation on the matter.
The Minnesota-based Freedom From Religion Foundation unsuccessfully sought the removal of a statue of Jesus from U.S. Forest Service land on a ski hill at the Whitefish Mountain Resort. A federal judge ruled against the group in June.