The Freedom From Religion Foundation regularly receives complaints about school concerts with many religious songs and objects to treating public school choruses like church choirs. However, a concert held this year by four Pennsylvania public school districts went far beyond those “run of the mill” religious music complaints.
An April 14, concert put on by the choruses of Manheim Township High School, McCaskey High School, Pequea Valley High School, and Hempfield High School all in south-central Pennsylvania, was thoroughly and pervasively religious.
The concert was held at First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, in the church sanctuary, underneath a large cross. It was a joint concert between the schools and the church’s Chancel Choir and was advertised as part of the church’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” concert series.
A large majority of the songs were religious and included “How Can I Keep from Singing,” “Precious Lord” and three songs based on Psalms, among several others. Most appalling, the church passed around offering plates in the middle of the concert to solicit money for the church’s concert series.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the four school districts on June 14 addressing each of these constitutional violations. The two attorneys who represent the four districts replied with coordinated responses on July 19. These responses are HERE. Both refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing and claimed that without knowing the name of FFRF’s complainant, the matter was only an “interesting academic exercise” and a “purely philosophical concern.”
While it is not necessary to name a complainant with legal standing in order to have these egregious complaints addressed, FFRF’s complainant graciously agreed to be named in a rebuttal letter, which was sent August 16. Markert wrote that the religious songs at the concert were largely modern songs and Christian hymns, not the type of classical sacred choral music courts have sanctioned in the past. She noted that “the intermingling among the church, church staff, the church’s choir, and the high school choirs at the Choir Festival was completely inappropriate.”
Markert added that even if the attorneys maintained the song and venue choices were appropriate, “it is undeniable that many of the Districts’ students and parents are not Christians, and were therefore ostracized by the pervasively religious Festival.”
The attorney for the complainant’s school district responded at the start of the fall term, claiming the concert was “in no way” a joint production between the district and the church, and that the district “merely consented to participate in a high school choral festival taking place at an acoustically excellent facility.”
“We’re very disappointed that these public school districts are more interested in circling the wagons than in ensuring that rights of conscience are respected in their schools,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
Complied by Maddy Ziegler