Little Rock Elementary School Warned of First Amendment Violations

 For Immediate Release


(Little Rock, Arkansas: November 29, 2012.) The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF) has enlisted the services of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in correcting violations of separation of church and state at Terry Elementary School in Little Rock.

 

The controversy began when Terry Elementary School notified parents of a field trip to see "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown," a live theatrical production at a Little Rock evangelical church. The notice said, "This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child’s creative imagination in the area of dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending)."

 

The parents in question, who wish to remain anonymous, felt they were being forced to choose between maintaining their family’s religious beliefs and their child being singled out and possibly ostracized or bullied. They contacted the ASF last week for help. The story first broke on Little Rock NBC affiliate station KARK, on November 21st, and has since gained national exposure.

 

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, has donated its legal services in resolving this matter. It has sent the following notice to the Principal of Terry Elementary School, The Little Rock school district superintendent, and the Little Rock School Board. "We hope that this matter can be resolved, and the First Amendment followed, without resorting to legal action," said Susan Heffington, ASF President. “Anyone who wants to see this play can attend outside of school hours, but religion does not belong in our public schools.”

 

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November 26, 2012

 

Sandra Register

Principal

Terry Elementary School

10800 Mara Lynn Drive

Little Rock, Arkansas 72211

 

Dr. Morris Holmes

Superintendent

Little Rock School District

810 West Markham Street

Little Rock, Arkansas 72201

 

cc: Little Rock School District Board of Education

 

Re: Public Elementary School Field Trip to Church to See Christian Play

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

I am writing to alert you to a serious separation of church and state concern.  We have recently received a request for legal assistance from the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason on behalf of the parents of a student at Terry Elementary School.  They informed us that the school has scheduled a field trip for students to view a production of “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!,” a Christmas play with a sectarian theme, staged at and by Agape Church, a local evangelical Christian church, the week of December 14.



 

The American Humanist Association is a national nonprofit organization with over 10,000 members and 20,000 supporters across the country, including in Arkansas.  The purpose of AHA’s legal center is to protect one of the most fundamental legal principles of our democracy: the constitutional mandate requiring separation of church and state, embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 


 

As you must know, the Supreme Court has made clear that the “First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state” and that this “wall must be kept high and impregnable.”  Everson v. Bd. of Ed. of Ewing Twp., 330 U.S. 1, 18 (1947).  To do so, “the Constitution mandates that the government remain secular.”  County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 610 (1989).  In order to secure this freedom from state-backed religion, the Constitution requires that any governmental “practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause,” must have a “secular purpose” and not “advance . . . religion.”  Id. at 590.  Specifically, the government “may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization.”  Id.  Courts “pay particularly close attention to whether the challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of [unconstitutionally] ‘endorsing’ religion.”  Id. at 591.  Endorsement includes “conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.”  Id. at 593.  



 

In short, “religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,” not the state.  Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 625 (1971).  In addition, the Supreme Court has in particular expressed especially “heightened concern” about preventing any sort of public school involvement with religion because of the risk of “subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools” environment.  Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 592 (1992).  



 

Applying these general constitutional rules to the issue at hand, we have reason to believe that the school’s actions are in violation of the Establishment Clause.  The school is encouraging impressionable young students to attend an event in a Christian venue with a Christian message.  The effect is to affiliate the school with that message, encouraging its adoption by the students by means of this endorsement.  



 

In the play, following a raucous and disjointed attempt to put on a Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown expresses frustration.  Linus says he can tell Charlie Brown “what Christmas is all about.”  He then quotes verbatim the New Testament of the Bible, Luke 2:8-14:




And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.



The characters then cease bickering, adopt this religious view (rejecting the supposed “commercialism” of a secular Christmas celebration), and, in the immediately following final scenes, sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:

 

Hark the herald angels sing

“Glory to the newborn King!”

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Hark! The herald angels sing

“Glory to the newborn King!”





The message of the play is clear: Jesus Christ is the son of God and the messiah, and the real meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the anniversary of his birth.  It is completely sectarian in nature and expressly rejects any secular version of Christmas.  



 

A church is of course free to spread this religious message.  Our public schools, however, are not free to take part in the effort.  They may not choose to promote it by encouraging students to attend, let alone by organizing and funding attendance by means of an official field trip.  Although objecting students may decline to attend, they will face the subtly coercive pressure of their peers to do so (in addition of course to the explicit encouragement of the school).  Because of this, the Supreme Court has made clear that an Establishment Clause violation is not “mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request.”  Abington School Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 224-25 (1963).  

 

The Establishment Clause forbids our schools from promoting a religious message in this way.  This trip must therefore be canceled.  In the alternative, it may be modified to be instead a visit to a secular Christmas-themed theatrical performance, such as the Nutcracker, would of course present no issue.  

 

Please notify us in writing about the steps you are taking to avoid this constitutional violation so that we may avoid any potential litigation.  Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

 

 

Sincerely,

William J. Burgess

Appignani Humanist Legal Center

American Humanist Association

 

 

[1]   https://www.agape-church.org/

[2]  The very first sentence of the Bill of Rights mandates that the state be secular: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  This provision, known as the Establishment Clause, “build[s] a wall of separation between church and State.”  See Reynolds v. United States98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878).  The Supreme Court “has given the [Establishment Clause] a ‘broad interpretation . . . in the light of its history and the evils it was designed forever to suppress. . . .’  [finding that it] afford[s] protection against religious establishment far more extensive than merely to forbid a national or state church.”  McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U. S. 420, 442 (1961).

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The Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason is a resource for Little Rock-area atheists and agnostics and a coalition of 11 local non-theistic groups serving that audience.

 

The United Coalition of Reason is a network of over 50 local coalitions nationwide and works to raise the visibility and sense of unity among non-theistic groups by promoting cooperation and providing funding.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association (www.HumanistLegalCenter.org) is the legal arm of the American Humanist Association ( www.AmericanHumanist.org ) and has donated its legal services to assist the United Coalition of Reason’s advocacy on behalf of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason.

 

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For more information contact:

 

LeeWood Thomas

Media Representative

Arkansas Society of Freethinkers

501-765-4287

[email protected]

www.ARfreethinkers.org

 

Susan Heffington

President

Arkansas Society of Freethinkers

501-420-2966

[email protected] 

www.ARfreethinkers.org

 

Anne Orsi

Vice President

Arkansas Society of Freethinkers

501-416-6568

[email protected]

www.ARfreethinkers.org

 

William J. Burgess, Esq.

Legal Coordinator

Appignani Humanist Legal Center

American Humanist Association

(202) 238-9088 (x102)

[email protected]

www.HumanistLegalCenter.org

 

Fred Edwords

National Director

United Coalition of Reason

202-550-9964

[email protected]

www.UnitedCoR.org