After Public Grade School Gets Blocked from Performing Religious Play, a Church Steps Right In

Last week, the fifth graders at E.J. Moss Intermediate school in Texas were supposed to put on their school play. And you know what grade school plays look like: Cute kids, happy songs, innocuous themes.

But for some reason, the play that was chosen was “In God We Trust” by Chris and Diane Machen, a play about the “Christian history” of our country written by two Christian musicians. When you read some of the lines from the school’s adaptation of the script, obtained by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it’s incredibly obvious that this production had no business being put on in a public school:

Ugh… Who made the decision to use this awful script? I’m almost more offended as a person who performed in school plays than I am as a defender of church/state separation…

Needless to say, FFRF (at the request of a parent at the school) told the Lindale Independent School District it couldn’t allow this production to go on as is (PDF):

this program is an egregious violation of the First Amendment and should be canceled immediately. It is illegal for a public school to compel students to participate in religious expression. This is compounded by the fact that the children, as fifth graders, are very young. The performance has a clearly devotional and proselytizing message and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, not in a public school.

That letter was sent to the school district last Monday. By Wednesday, the school had told parents the show would not go on in its present form:

… E.J. Moss Intermediate sent a letter to parents and students to let them know that, after consulting school attorneys, they found that the program was not in compliance with state and federal curriculum guidelines. Principal Lori Anderson went on to say that adjustments were made to the program in order for the program to meet the guidelines.

“We realize this program is a treasured part of our community and a tradition at E.J. Moss Intermediate School, however the Lindale Independents School District wants to respect the values, opinions and religious freedoms of all families and therefore we must make modifications to the program,” said Anderson in the letter.

I didn’t think it could be done but school officials found a way to water down a grade school play. It was performed last week without all the Jesus and I’m sure it was cute and memorable and happy.

That should have been the end of the story… but of course it wasn’t.

A local church was furious that the play was ruined by the damn law so they rented out facilities at a local high school and made plans to stage the original production with any students who wanted to participate:

Pastor Tom Buck, of the First Baptist Church in Lindale, was particularly disappointed to hear an out-of-state organization had impacted the school program was being altered.

“I’ve spoken with parents and with students who’s entire performance was being eliminated,” says Buck.

Buck says religious freedom should be discussed but the program should not be squashed.

Buck, obviously, is no lawyer and has no idea what religious freedom actually is. If the play honored the Koran and Islam instead of Jesus and the Bible, you know it’s guys like him who would be leading the charge to stop the performances.

Pastor Tom Buck

The church’s production of the play is taking place tonight. I suspect many of the same students will take part in tonight’s performance, some of them likely pressured into it by their peers. But that’s still technically legal as long as the school has nothing to do with it. Just to remind them to stay away, though, FFRF sent another letter to the school district late last week (PDF):

the district (and any district employees) are prohibited from coordinating, facilitating, or promoting this “non-school” religious performance.

While I understand there is disappointment in the district regarding the decision to modify this long-standing illegal program, it is incumbent on Lindale ISD to make sure that district employees understand they may not help coordinate or facilitate this alternate performance.

Interestingly enough, this is hardly an example of the church just trying to “make things right.” Check out how they pulled out all the stops for tonight:

The performance that was geared toward a few hundred parents has now captured the support of thousands. East Texans picked up T-shirts printed in support of the original version of the E.J Moss Intermediate School program called, “In God We Trust.”

Buck says they’re expecting up to 2,000 people and have made plans for the overflow of people since the performing arts center holds about 1,200.

The shirts say, “In God We Trust” on the front and “We support LISD” on the back. More than 750 were pre-ordered and printed. The shirts that aren’t picked up and paid for Tuesday night will be on sale at the performance on Wednesday.

The church paid $1,580 to rent the facilities at the local high school, but they’re going to recoup their costs in a heartbeat.

It’s brilliant or evil, depending on how you look at it: A church is capitalizing on a school’s violation of the law by staging their own version of the play (with many of the same students, who learned their parts under the direction of their public schoolteachers) and promoting their religion to all the parents and students who attend.

Still, at least the school learned its lesson and that’s where the focus has to be. You can bet they won’t stage another play like this in the future. They can leave the brainwashing to the church.

***Update***: Pastor Tom Buck responds to my posting in the comments:

Dear Mr. Mehta,
I am perfectly fine with your freedom to disagree with me in regards to our church stepping in to allow the students who wish to perform the entirety of their program. But I do take issue with your false characterizations regarding our church’s motives and insinuating that we are somehow profiting from the event that took place last night. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that your information was obtained from the false claims made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Our church had nothing to do with the printing or sales of the t-shirts. The t-shirts were printed and sold by parents (none of which attend or are connected with our church) and they were sold at cost. We paid the full rental fee and we did not solicit any monies nor did we sale anything to recoup t he cost. I respect your right to disagree, but I do not respect the dispensing of false and potentially slanderous information. I am sure you will want to make this correction clear.

I apologize, then, for my mischaracterization of the t-shirts. However, I still believe the church will recoup its costs indirectly through people who either donated to them at the performance or who will be going to the church in the coming weeks. Well-intentioned or not, the church is taking advantage of a situation that never should have occurred in the first place. Pastor Buck’s comments below also indicate that he sees nothing inappropriate with what the school did.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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