The Wake County school system has rejected the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s request to bar schools from participating at a Nativity event at a Raleigh church, a year after bowing to the group’s request at an Apex church.
Nine Wake school choirs and orchestras are performing at the Raleigh Community Christmas Celebration that runs through Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Raleigh. The event includes singing of Christmas carols and the display of Nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that the school performances at the event are unconstitutional because it violates separation of church and state. The group’s complaint last year prompted Wake to prohibit schools from participating in the Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Apex.
But schools are allowed to participate in this year’s event at the Raleigh church because it is not so overtly religious as the Apex event, said Wake schools spokesman Tim Simmons. He cited a YouTube video of the Apex event where a church official makes statements such as how the event “represents a wonderful opportunity for you to bear testimony of Christ to your friends.”
“These are all case-by-case decisions.” Simmons said. “It’s the Establishment Clause. You’re taking criteria and applying it to each situation.”
Wake still doesn’t let school groups participate at the Apex Nativity event, although students can perform on their own.
“We most assuredly have not used these events to proselyte to the public,” David Creech, a spokesman for the Apex stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in an email Friday. “While we are obviously disappointed in WCPSS’s stance on not allowing their music groups to perform in Apex, we welcome any and all to come and celebrate the Christmas season with us.
“These events were created to unite our neighborhoods and communities, not divide them.”
Patrick Elliott, senior counsel for the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he couldn’t see any fundamental difference between the two Mormon church events that would allow school groups to perform at the Raleigh celebration. The foundation sent its request last week asking Wake to bar schools from participating in the Raleigh event on Six Forks Road.
“This event is unconstitutional,” Elliott said. “There is no way that a public school can participate in a church event which has as its focus a Nativity scene.”
The website for the Raleigh celebration tells visitors that “we invite you to share in our love of the Savior Jesus Christ at this celebratory time of the year through outstanding musical performances from schools and ensembles throughout our community, nativity displays from around the world, and beautiful artwork depicting the Life of Christ.”
“The intent of this activity is to give back to the community and share, to provide our building as a place for the community to come and celebrate our community values that we have and celebrate Christmas together,” said Garth Despain, a spokesman for the Raleigh stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Despain said more than 1,000 people attend each year with the crowds sometimes reaching 2,000 to 3,000. He said many of the visitors are friends and families of the performers.
The celebration opened Thursday night with school groups performing a range of religious-themed and secular holiday music, including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Away in a Manger, “The First Noel,” “Jingle Bells, “Deck the Halls” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
“Even though it’s a church, a lot of people here are just coming to have a good time,” said Michael Collier, 17, a junior and member of the Leesville Road High School Capital Pride Singers, which performed Thursday. “Religion really doesn’t come into play.”
Anna Gold, 17, a senior and fellow Leesville singer, also said she didn’t see the event as indoctrinating singers into religious activity.
“It’s just a performance,” she said. “It’s the same to us as our concerts.”
But in the foundation’s memo, the group says there’s a clear difference between students singing at a church and singing at secular places like assisted living homes or community parks. The foundation says “a reasonable student will perceive that the school is endorsing religion” when he or she is asked by the school to perform at a church.
Last year’s complaint about the Apex event led Wake to send a memo to principals over the summer giving guidance on how to handle participation at religious venues. Guidelines include:
▪ School choirs should perform at a variety of venues, not exclusively or overwhelmingly at religious venues.
▪ The school choir teacher should select the songs to be performed, which should include at least some secular songs without religious content.
▪ Performances at churches should be voluntary in the sense that students who do not wish to participate should be able to opt out without any negative impact on grades or status in the choir.
▪ The school should confirm that the students’ performance will not be a part of worship service.
▪ The school should inform the church that the church should not proselytize to the students during the event – either through church staff or through advertising materials or follow-up communications geared toward parents or children.
Principals were told to weigh factors such as whether students and parents are required to walk through areas replete with conspicuous religious symbols and whether there is a risk that a neutral observer would perceive the district is endorsing a particular religion by having students perform.
“We all learned last year about our need to make sure that we were staying on the right side of the issue,” Simmons said. “It had not been an issue until the Freedom From Religion Foundation raised it last year. Clearly the Freedom From Religion Foundation had an effect on that issue.”
But Elliott said voluntary participation doesn’t make it constitutional. He’s also pressing the school system’s attorneys for reassurances that schools won’t return to these events in the future.
“We’re still hopeful we can work something out with the school system,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, litigation is always a possibility.”