Education

Wake County school choirs barred from performing at nativity event

The Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Apex features more than 600 nativity scenes and musical performances. Wake County school choirs were barred from performing at the event last weekend.
The Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Apex features more than 600 nativity scenes and musical performances. Wake County school choirs were barred from performing at the event last weekend. Forrest Anderson

The Wake County school system barred several school choirs from performing at this year’s Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Wisconsin-based foundation argued that it was unconstitutional for the school choirs to perform at the annual nativity celebration sponsored by the Church of Latter-day Saints in Apex. Wake school officials said they acted after the foundation forwarded a YouTube video in which a church official makes statements such as how the event “represents a wonderful opportunity for you to bear testimony of Christ to your friends.”

Video courtesy of Cedar Behnke

“The advice of Tharrington Smith (the district’s attorney) is that it put the district in the position of potentially endorsing a religious viewpoint,” Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman, said in an interview Tuesday.

Simmons said the Apex decision doesn’t prevent schools from participating at other nativity events as long as those events are not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

Representatives from the foundation, which says it’s “dedicated to the separation of state and church,” took credit for the schools not participating at last week’s Apex nativity event.

“It’s great that officials finally realized the dubiousness of school attendance at such an obviously religious ceremony,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, said in a written statement. “It was unacceptable that public school choirs were performing at this function.”

Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for the foundation, said the group first got involved last year after a parent complained about the choirs participating in the event. The foundation followed up this year after hearing that some school choirs would be performing.

“Public schools are a place for all students regardless of religious belief or non-belief,” Elliott said in an interview Tuesday. “To have public schools involved in a Christian event celebrating the birth of Jesus is a problem.”

According to the nativity event website, it’s a three-day “celebration of the birth and ministry of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

“They (school choirs) bring hundreds of parents and grandparents and friends who come and listen to them sing,” Steve Bodhaine, a church official, said in the 2014 YouTube video. “And when the singing is done, these wonderful people linger.

“They walk around and they see the hundreds of nativities from all over the world and they begin to feel something sacred in their hearts. This for us is the opportunity to share the wonder and love of the Savior.”

A spokesman for the church did not return a phone call or email Tuesday.

On Nov. 17, Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore emailed nativity organizers saying the event “has been a positive experience for our students in past years.” But Moore cited the legal review and said she regretted to inform them that the choirs couldn’t participate this year.

Simmons said students can participate individually at future Apex nativity events.

“No one was particularly happy with the outcome of this,” Simmons said. “Some schools had been participating for several years.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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