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Supreme Court of the United States

Sign of the Times

By Alan Sears posted on:
October 17, 2017

It’s that time of year again when students are finishing up school and getting ready for the summer.  There’s the stressful time during final exams and completing any last projects that are due.  But there are also some fun times, such as end of the year talent shows that are hosted by many schools.  A time when kids find out their friends’ and classmates’ hidden “talents.”  Those they may otherwise never get to see.

And the kids display all sorts of talent—some true talent, some not so much—but all in good fun.  I’ve seen students who sing, play instruments, juggle, tell jokes (one or two that are even funny), act, dancereenact the Super Mario Bros video game, and even perform as the infamous Whistling Hat Men.

So why does it happen every year that when a kid wants to sing or perform a Christian song, some schools prohibit the song as if it were toxic?  The number one reason given?  You can probably guess--it violates the so-called separation of church and state.  That’s interesting because that principle can only be violated by the government.  Does anyone really believe that when each of these kids imitates Super Mario, or dances as glow stick men, that they are speaking on behalf of the school itself?  Of course not, that’s nonsense.  And you don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to figure that out, just have a bit of common sense.

Unfortunately, this year is no different.  ADF was contacted by a parent whose daughter, Joy (her name reminds of biblical times when children were purposefully given names that reflected their personalities), attends Moscow School District in Idaho.  Joy wanted to perform sign language to the Christian song “We Fall Down” by Chris Tomlin.  She practiced signing for many weeks when she was told that her song was “too religious.”  There must be some sort of talent show denial booklet that is distributed to schools because last year the L.A. School District told another young man that his song was also “too religious” and ordered him to choose a song that didn’t mention Jesus so many times.  ADF filed a lawsuit and the school relented under strain from a court filed TRO.

The Good News is that this year we did not have to go that far as a demand letter to the school was sufficient.  To the district’s credit, they quickly reversed course and are allowing Joy to sing.  They are also reviewing their unconstitutional policy which they applied to censor Joy in the first place.

So what’s the lesson here?  That schools need to learn the true meaning of the Establishment Clause and stop using it to justify censoring a student’s religious speech.  Here’s a simple math equation:

Private student speech + religion = First Amendment protection.

And one slightly more advanced math equation:

Private student speech + religion + school + talent show = First Amendment protection.

As a few courts have said:

[T]he desirable approach is not for schools to throw up their hands because of the possible misconceptions about endorsement of religion, but that instead it is far better to teach students about the first amendment, about the difference between private and public action, about why we tolerate divergent views ....

The school's proper response is to educate the audience rather than squelch the speaker. Schools may explain that they do not endorse speech by permitting it. If pupils do not comprehend so simple a lesson, then one wonders whether the schools can teach anything at all.

Except for changing the word “pupils” in the last sentence to “school officials,” I couldn’t agree more.

Alan Sears

Alan Sears


Alan Sears served as founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, building on his experience as longtime leader of the organization to strengthen alliances, forge new relationships, and develop ADF resources.

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