A federal court has issued an order that will prevent a New Jersey school from censoring students’ Christian musical selections in future talent shows.
The Alliance Defense Fund said the order comes down in favor of an elementary school student who, when she was a second-grader in May 2005, had been chosen to participate in the competition, and then picked “Awesome God,” made famous by the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins, to perform.
Officials at Frenchtown Elementary School denied her permission, a decision endorsed by the board of education, citing not only the song’s religious content but its “proselytizing” nature.
“Religious speech should not be treated as second-class,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “This court properly recognized that the school officials had violated this student’s First Amendment rights by singling her out for censorship, simply because the song she wanted to sing is one that expresses her religious faith.”
The court ruling, by U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson, rejected arguments from officials at Frenchtown Elementary school that the song was inappropriate because of its “overtly religious message and proselytizing nature.”
The ruling, which granted a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the student, said the song chosen and sung “by an individual student … was the private speech of a student and not a message conveyed by the school itself.”
To ban speech just because it is “divisive or controversial” is to engage in “unlawful viewpoint discrimination,” and the girl had broken no rules regarding the show, the court ruling said.
“Frenchtown had solicited individual student performances for the talent show,” the court ruling said. “Indeed, the only restrictions communicated to students were set forth in the guidelines for the talent show, which included a requirement that the performance must be ‘G-rated.’”
“Moreover, religious performances were welcomed by the school; for example, after [a school official] rejected ‘Awesome God,’ she encouraged Plaintiff to choose another song to perform and explained that Plaintiff could choose a religious one if she so desired.”
As for proselytizing, the school “would have permitted …performers to encourage audience members to: espouse a belief that it is important to take care of the earth … espouse a belief that it is important to help poor and impoverished people … and to lean on friends when they experience hardships.”
“In light of Frenchtown’s tolerance of both religious and ‘proselytizing’ content in the context of the talent show, … I find that the Board’s refusal to allow Plaintiff to perform the song ‘Awesome God’ at the Frenchtown Elementary School talent show amounted to unlawful viewpoint discrimination,” Judge Wolfson wrote.
The judge also noted there was no conflict with the Establishment Clause.
“The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits governmental advancement or restriction of religion,” the court said. However, the circumstances of a talent show, after school, where performances were “selected, developed, practiced and performed by the individual students and without substantial interference by the school” simply could not be assumed to carry a formal message of religious endorsement from the school.
“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,” said Tedesco. “Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for religious liberty and free speech, especially for students.”
Demetrios K. Stratis also served as a counsel for ADF, a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the truth, in the case. The case was brought on behalf of the student identified as O.T. by her parents.
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