Anne the legal analyst locking horns with local elementary school on separation case.

Contributor to this blog, Anne Orsi, is doing some activism in Northwest Arkansas.  Here’s the back story.

A longtime holiday show, beloved by children, inadvertently sparked a controversy in Little Rock over the separation of church and state.

It happened when some teachers at Terry Elementary school sent letters home offering to shuttle first and second graders to see a stage version of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Agape, a local church.

“We’re not saying anything bad about Charlie Brown,” said Anne Orsi, a Little Rock Attorney and Vice President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.

“The problem is that it’s got religious content and it’s being performed in a religious venue and that doesn’t just blur the line between church and state, it over steps it entirely.”

The letter the teachers sent home indicates the play will be held on a school day at 10 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 14 at the Agape Church. Children attending will be taken on a school bus and will need to pay $2 to cover the expense of the bus rides, according to the letter.

There are some of the usual objections.

Some of Agape staffers did say they have held holiday productions for students in the past and no one raised concerns about those shows.

Just because something illegal has happened before without complaint doesn’t mean it’s not illegal or that it should get to continue when people do complain.  And, as we saw with Jessica Ahlquist, with religiously charged issues like this, often people do not complain out of fear, not out of tacit approval.

This is undoubtedly why the parents don’t want their identities or the identity of their child revealed for fear of reprisal.  They don’t want their children singled out as “different” and they certainly don’t want to expose the children to potential bullying.  Since a teacher at the school has a role in the performance, they don’t want to subject that child to possible disfavor from the teacher due to her resentment.  The parents also do not want their children to have religious exposure during public school class time, and they do not want their children to be sent to another classroom  to spend idle time during the public school day while the rest of their classmates receive religious exposure.

Another argument is that there isn’t anything religious about the show.

A spokeswoman for the Little Rock School District says the district does not endorse any particular faith or encourage any specific religious activity.

Yeah, about that…

Either lying or incompetent.  The stated mission of the church’s drama group is to “minister to the Lord with the gifts that He has placed in the body of Agape under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.”  You’d think that might’ve given them some hint.

But even if there wasn’t proselytizing, it’s in a church where the kids will be exposed to all kinds of sectarian religious propaganda en route to the play – during school hours.

Todd Starnes of FOX News has an article out that is full of fail (though, not as much as the comments on that article on his facebook page).  Incidentally, anybody who can rankle FOX like this has a welcome spot contributing to my blog.  :)

Pamela Smith, the communications director for the Little Rock School District, told Fox News that students were not required to attend the performance and as far as the district is concerned – there is no controversy.

Nope, no controversy.  They’re just taking kids to a church while they’re supposed to be at school to hear a religious message.  Nothing to worry about here at all.  Again, either lying or incompetent.

“The teachers wanted to provide an opportunity for cultural enrichment for students through a holiday production and are supported by the principal,” Smith said. “Because it will be held at a church, as some public events often are, a letter was sent home with students so parents who took exception and wished to have their children remain at school could do so.”

It’s not enough to let students opt out of sectarian religious indoctrination.  The school should not be in that business with any students!  What’s more, many atheistic kids at that age are closeted for fear of ostracism.  Even if it weren’t egregiously illegal to cart public school students to a sectarian church to hear a sectarian religious message, you’re still forcing the non-believing students to either announce their non-Christian beliefs or be subject to that message when they should be learning.  That somebody working for a public school fails to grasp these very simple concepts is unforgivable.

The show features a poignant moment when Linus recites passages of scripture from the Gospel of Luke — noting the birth of Jesus Christ.

See the above video.  Either Starnes has not seen the show (in which case, why is he commenting on it) or he has and is simply full of shit.

Smith told Fox News the school district does not “promote or encourage students to support any religious affiliation.”

Again, either lying or incompetent and, if he and the other representatives for the Little Rock school don’t stop lying or wise up, the students may very well pay the price for their dishonesty.

Good job, Anne.  Way to stand up to the bullies, regardless of how fervently they wave their crosses.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • RuQu

    Can we compromise?

    The next day all the kids have to go to the local Planned Parenthood to watch a screening of Doctor Who Christmas Specials.

  • Jaime Wise

    legal question: If the kids are paying for busing, and not being taken there for free, does that change anything? or is the fact that it’s going on during school hours the only one needed to show endorsment? Would it break any laws if the school provided busing, free or otherwise, after school hours?

    • Anne

      Public schools cannot support religion, so no, even taking the school buses (presumably with a school-hired driver, who would be working overtime) to a religious activity is not the best practice, even if the driver is paid by the students and the gas and wear-and-tear on the bus is reimbursed by the students. Schools are not in the business to providing public transportation.

      Had the teacher involved with the play just sent a note home with her class telling the parents that she was in this play and inviting them to attend on their own time, we wouldn’t be in the news about this. The problem isn’t Charlie Brown, whom everyone loves, or the church. The problem is that a public school is taking its students to church to see a production with a very strong religious theme during regular instruction time.

      That having been said, I personally love the Charlie Brown Christmas special and will probably watch it in my own living room this year just like I have every year. But I’m an adult, and can disregard Linus’s explanation that if you aren’t doing Christmas for Jesus, you aren’t doing it right. For me and my son, Christmas is about being together, enjoying extended family, eating special holiday food, and – yes – the gifts that we give to each other to elicit special smiles.

  • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Some of Agape staffers did say they have held holiday productions for students in the past and no one raised concerns about those shows.

    Nobody complained about the hobos I’ve murdered every month for the last few years, and now you want to convince me it’s illegal?

    • Baal

      It’s only illegal if you don’t share with the local food shelf.

  • John Horstman

    *Sigh* Someday every public school will deal with this kind of stuff in a sane, reasonable fashion, but perhaps not in my lifetime. I’d envy future generations if I wasn’t so worried about global warming and our steadfast refusal to move away from a petroleum culture devastating the material well-being of future humanity. :-P

  • guest

    “the school district does not “promote or encourage students to support any religious affiliation.””
    but this sentence is correct. It’s not like children have to attend mass first or are being force-baptized. If my child watches Star Wars, they don’t automatically become a Jedi. (or is there a scene were charlie brown says everyone else goes to hell? I might have missed that)
    I assume the point is the endorsement of Christianity and as you said that students are exposed (and probably feel left out or worse are ridiculed) if they don’t attend. And that’s wrong.
    Why can’t the play happen at a school or the local theater? (yes, there is a christian christmas message in the 50 year old play/film but at the same time Charlie Brown (christmas and thanksgiving) seems to be like a very secular family tradition. Like christmas pudding.

    • Brian Westley

      Taking children to a church to see a play about the meaning of Christmas is “secular” in the same way that taking children to a mosque to see a play about the meaning of Ramadan is “secular.” As in, not at all secular.

  • Brian Westley

    Also irony: later in life Charles Schultz described himself as a secular humanist:

  • Ibis3

    I wouldn’t have a problem with this if the school had several such outings through the school year to other celebrations (e.g. a play put on at a Hindu temple to celebrate Divali, a mosque field trip to learn about Eid, a Chinese temple for Chinese New Year, a Pagan celebration of Samhain, and a trip to a science museum with an atheist group for, I dunno, Darwin Day or something). That would be educational (as in, this is what people, some of whom may be classmates of yours now or in the future, believe and practise) and obviously not intended to proselytize for any one religion. As it is, it’s just “Here, let this church preach to the kids about how if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re doing Christmas wrong.”