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District assures FFRF that staff will not participate in school gospel choir

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An Illinois school district has confirmed to the Freedom From Religion Foundation that its staff members will not remain involved in a school gospel choir.

FFRF initially contacted the Oak Park and River Forest High School (the only school in Oak Park and River Forest District 200) in December after a local community member informed the organization that there was a gospel choir at the school being led by the school's outreach coordinator.

"It is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach its students songs of Christian worship," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams. "It is well settled that public schools may not advance or endorse religion. Federal courts have used public school gospel choirs as an example of an obviously religious activity that the school may not endorse. The problem is not solved by making participation in the religious group voluntary." 

The school district replied the following month with the assertion that it was "reviewing measures which ensure alignment with the guidelines and limitations" of the law. The school district told FFRF that the gospel choir would be treated as a completely student-run club.

FFRF sent a follow-up letter seeking clarification that staff members of the school district, including the school's outreach coordinator, would not participate in the choir, "as required by Section (c)(3) of the Equal Access Act ('employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity')." 

The school district's attorney confirmed in a recent response that this would indeed be the case. 

FFRF is heartened by the assurance.

"While we're not against students putting together a gospel choir as a fulfilling extracurricular activity, public school staff can't be involved," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're glad that the school district realized that it needs to tread carefully to avoid giving the appearance of official endorsement of such activity."

FFRF is a state/church watchdog organization with more than 26,000 members and chapters all over the country, including 800-plus and a Chicago chapter in the state of Illinois.

Photo via Shutterstock by JeremyWhat

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