Controversy over the separation of church and state is brewing in Montana. The trouble began when two high schools were invited to perform at a Christmas event taking place at a Kalispell Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a two day event featuring several music acts and a display of nativities.
The schools accepted the invitation as it gave students an opportunity to participate in a community event and gain extra performance experience. However, two organizations have taken exception to the involvement of the schools. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent a letter to the schools, asking that they cancel the scheduled performances. A similar request was made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. Both organizations feel that the participation of public school choirs at the event constitutes an endorsement of a religion.
At attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation calls the celebration “a worship service” and likens the performance to singing in the church choir. The superintendent for Kalispell Public Schools argues that no sponsorship of religious beliefs will be implied by the performances. Instead, the district views this as an opportunity for the students to perform in a public venue.
Another point of contention for the protestors is whether or not the students are essentially being coerced into the performance. While district officials state that students always have the choice to opt out of certain activities based on religious beliefs, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the ACLU insist that in this instance, this is not a choice students should have to face. They cite the enormous pressure teens commonly feel to fit in, saying that most students will go along with the performance even if it violates their beliefs so that they won’t be seen as troublemakers.
Despite the letters of protest, the school district seems determined to continue with the plan for the choirs to participate in the event. They seem to be taking the protests in stride, arguing that the festival is a public event that many people attend for artistic reasons rather than out of any religious convictions.