Schools Sever Link to Nativity Pageant

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation was notified in early January that its recent complaint about Madison public school involvement in an annual nativity pageant has been heeded.

Superintendent Art Rainwater of the Madison Metropolitan School District issued guidelines to avoid the appearance of public school sponsorship in the future.

One of the first successful state/ church complaints lodged by the newly-formed Freedom From Religion Foundation in the late 1970s was to halt official school district sponsorship of the annual pageant held in the Wisconsin State Capitol. The Foundation complaint ended a longstanding violation involving city/school funding of the Christian worship service. The sponsorship was taken over by the local Kiwanis club.

In a Dec. 8 letter of complaint to the MMSD, Foundation spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Supt. Rainwater that it appeared the “outside sponsorship has been in name only.”

“Every year the Madison public schools have groomed Madison public school students to participate in this Christian event. Talented musical students are recruited directly through the public high schools and are rehearsed and trained by salaried public school teachers. We have taken complaints in recent years by students who have been pressured to perform.”

In its letter, the Foundation advised the Madison school district and several surrounding districts of its intent to sue the school districts if they did not halt de facto public school sponsorship of the annual Christian worship service.

Several public school employees organized and presided over choirs, bands and “actors” (students who dressed up like Joseph, Mary, angels, etc.). Most of the 200 participants were public school students.

News coverage by the Wisconsin State Journal extolling the event last December pointed out that not much has changed since the first pageant took place in 1923. The Foundation agreed, noting in its letter: “This religious ceremony and the endorsement of it by our public schools is certainly a throw-back to another era.”

Rainwater distributed an eight-point memo on Jan. 8 to Madison high school principals, who were directed to share the memo with employees involved with the pageant, and who “may be involved in the 2004 pageant.”

Rainwater’s memo states: “The First Amendment requires that public school districts and their staffs, when acting in their official capacities (i.e., in pay status), cannot organize, coordinate, solicit, encourage, sponsor or endorse any specific religious activity such as the Nativity Pageant.”

While the memo permits schools to make announcements about the pageant, if the contact person is a district employee, students will be given only home numbers and emails. The memo clearly states that rehearsals, training, etc., “cannot be conducted by School District Administrators or other District employees while . . . in pay status,” and requires that permits be obtained to use school facilities for any rehearsals. This is supposed to halt teacher-led rehearsals that were taking place directly after school lets out.

The Foundation proposed that the school district sponsor an annual secular celebration of student musical, artistic talent and diversity in the State Capitol. “Instead of performing for a Christian population, students would by putting on an event that would welcome all in the community, regardless of religious or nonreligious tradition.” So far, the school district has not taken action on this suggestion.

The Foundation is monitoring the situation, asking students and their families to contact the Foundation if they encounter future coercion or entanglement between their public schools and the nativity pageant.

Freedom From Religion Foundation