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FFRF urges Ark. school district to end revival-like halftime shows

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Lake Hamilton School District to put a stop to a controversial halftime show that condemns non-Christian viewers to damnation.

Several concerned members of the district community have informed FFRF that the Lake Hamilton Power Band’s halftime and competition show for the 2023 season, titled “Revival,” incorporated inappropriate and unconstitutional religious themes and messaging. The show was themed after the Christian practice of “tent revivals.” It contained several religious hymns, all of which are exclusively Christian in nature. Props carried by band and color guard members had messages such as “sinners beware” and “repent now.” Other visuals from the show included references to fire-and-brimstone preaching typically found in a Christian revival, and during the show’s closer, the props were moved to create a latin cross, an explicit symbol of Christianity.

“Lake Hamilton School District has a responsibility to ensure that performances by school-sponsored groups do not impermissibly favor religion over nonreligion,” FFRF Equal Justice Fellow Kat Grant writes to legal counsel for the school district (situated in Garland County, Ark.).

It is a violation of the Constitution for any school representative to promote a religious message to students, FFRF points out. It is well settled that public schools may not violate the First Amendment rights of students by showing favoritism towards or coercing belief or participation in religion. Turning a school-sponsored marching band performance into a religious event violates the constitutional separation of religion and government.

Religion is a divisive force in public schools, FFRF emphasizes. Choosing a religious theme and props for marching band performances alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school, including the nearly one in three Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Student musicians are especially susceptible to coercion. Students know that band directors and staff have direct control over opportunities such as solos, features, chair and ensemble placement, and leadership positions, directly affecting students’ opportunities for college scholarships as well as admission to college music programs. When members of the band staff promote their personal religion to students through their programming choices, the student musicians will no doubt feel that agreeing with the religious viewpoint and participating in religious activities is essential to pleasing their director and being viewed as a team player. It is unrealistic and unconstitutional to put before student musicians the choice of allowing their constitutional rights to be violated in order to maintain good standing in the eyes of their coach and peers or openly dissenting at the risk of retaliation from their directors or bandmates.

FFRF is urging the district to stop the promotion of religion in school-sponsored performances.

“Using a high school band to spread disapproval of nonbelievers is a blatant abuse of power,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in Arkansas. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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