Oklahoma public school can’t promote religion in holiday concert, FFRF warns

An Edmond, Okla., school must refrain from including a Nativity performance in its annual holiday concert, since this constitutes a government endorsement of religion, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting.

A concerned Edmond Public Schools community member has reported that each year, third-grade teachers at Chisholm Elementary have students rehearse a live Nativity scene, which the students then perform at the school’s holiday concert in December. Students who participate in the Nativity reportedly play various roles, including Mary and Joseph.

Teaching students the biblical story of the birth of Jesus and having them regularly rehearse a performance of that story impermissibly entangles the school with the bible’s devotional message, FFRF points out to the district in a letter of complaint. The district has a constitutional duty to ensure that public school staff members do not use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint.

“District employees should be particularly mindful of not ostracizing their non-Christian students, given that fully 47 percent of young Americans — those born after 1999, i.e., all of the district’s current students — are not Christian, including those who practice minority religions and the 38 percent who are atheists, agnostic or otherwise not religious,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes in his letter to the district’s attorney.

In 2015, FFRF successfully brought a federal lawsuit against a public school district in Indiana over a holiday concert that involved a living nativity, in which students re-enacted the Nativity story from the New Testament. The court enjoined the school district from including the live Nativity scene. The decision read:

When the school places such disproportionate emphasis in the religious aspect of Christmas through the live depiction of the Nativity scene, it adds to the perception that the school is actually endorsing religion.

FFRF is urging the district to investigate this situation and ensure that future school-sponsored performances will not include Nativity scenes and that district teachers will not promote religion through classroom assignments.

“Public school teachers encouraging students to re-enact a biblical story is inherently coercive,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is even more concerning when the students involved are young and especially impressionable elementary schoolers.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including in Oklahoma. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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