Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
The sign for “Jesus Christ”
A public elementary school in Oakley, Calif., told a seven-year-old second grader that she would not be able to perform her sign language accompaniment to the song “We Worship You” at the school’s evening talent show because the song is Christian.
According to the Pacific Justice Institute, officials at Vintage Parkway Elementary School praised Bette Ouellette’s talent, but informed her after auditions that the song was unacceptable for the school’s June 1 talent show.
Bette’s father, Brent, thought the school overreacted, and he called PJI, which in turn sent a demand letter to the school, explaining legal precedent that condemns the school’s action as a wrongful misapplication of constitutional law and requesting notification that future student performances will not be censored based on religious content.
“Common sense and the federal courts both tell us that school talent shows are clearly student expression protected by the First Amendment,” commented PJI President Brad Dacus in a statement. “Censoring one student’s expression based on religious content is therefore unconstitutional. We are hopeful that these straightforward principles will be quickly recognized by the school.”
The letter PJI sent informs the school that not only have federal courts repeatedly ruled that applying the “separation of church and state” to censor religious content from student performances is unconstitutional, but also that in an almost identical case in New Jersey, a federal court ruled that censoring a religious song at a school talent show amounted to viewpoint discrimination.
“Contrary to popular belief, the United States Supreme Court has never insisted there be an impenetrable wall between church and state,” the letter states, and then cites a pair of federal court rulings to affirm, “rather, the U.S. Constitution ‘affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.’ To allow such hostility under the guise of total separation of church and state would necessarily bring this country into ‘war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.’”
Further, the letter states, “Federal courts have warned that school censorship of student-initiated religious activities is just as onerous as school sponsorship of such activities.”
WND contacted the school’s principal for comment, but received no response.
PJI attorney Matthew B. McReynolds told WND that Bette Ouellette did not perform at the talent show.
“All we want is an apology and a promise that this won’t happen again,” said Bette’s father in a statement. “There are a variety of religious views within our own household, but we respect each other and don’t try to silence anyone. We think the school should be the same way.”