The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants an overzealous high school band director to stop imposing his religion on others.
A concerned local parent informed FFRF that the Leeds High School band in Leeds, Ala., regularly performs a halftime show designed to resemble a Christian church service. The performance features Christian-themed music and involves church pews set up on the field. Some of the songs performed during this show include: “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” “I Saw the Light,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” and “Amazing Grace.” The parent also reports that the band director has said that members of the band who do not support this religious routine can “drop out of band.”
It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF informs the Leeds City Schools system.
“In Lee (1982), the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions, holding prayers at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to Leeds City Schools Superintendent John J. Moore. “Similarly, turning a school-sponsored marching band performance into a religious event violates the constitutional separation of religion and government. Leeds City Schools has a responsibility to ensure that performances by school-sponsored groups do not impermissibly promote religion over nonreligion or Judeo-Christianity over all minority faiths.”
Religion is a divisive force in public schools, FFRF emphasizes. Including Christian-themed music and props in a marching band performance alienates those non-Christian students, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school. It is particularly inappropriate given that more than 20 percent of the U.S. population identifies as nonreligious. Younger Americans are the least religious population in the country: One-in-three Millennials — those born after 1981 — fall into this category. It is a statistical certainty that there are nonreligious students in the Leeds High School marching band.
It does not matter whether the band’s practices and performances take place outside of regular instructional time, FFRF clarifies. The message being sent is still one of religious endorsement. It is also legally immaterial that students volunteer to participate in the band and that they could “drop out,” as director Wise callously suggested. The Supreme Court has summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness can mitigate unconstitutional religious promotion.
FFRF is asking Leeds City Schools officials to ensure that the district is not impermissibly promoting religion in school-sponsored performances. The district should remind Wise of his constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in his capacity as a district employee. The marching band must not be used as a mouthpiece to promote anyone’s personal religion.
“The band director’s actions are way over the line,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “In a secular setup, he cannot be permitted to foist his religion on others.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including in Alabama. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.