FFRF opposes major public school participation in upcoming Mormon Utah event

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is strongly opposing the participation of several Utah school districts in a soon-to-be-held religious concert.

Students from as many as 18 Utah school districts and educational institutions are set to take part in the religious Hope of America event scheduled for May 9-11 in Provo, sponsored by America’s Freedom Foundation in conjunction with America’s Freedom Festival. The Hope of America event takes place at the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University, a private university owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fifth-grade students from over 70 public schools throughout Utah County participated in the previous year’s jamboree last May. America’s Freedom Festival at Provo is a private nonprofit foundation “whose mission is to celebrate, teach, honor and strengthen the traditional American values of God, family, freedom, and country.”

The state/church watchdog has been contacted by a concerned school employee in the area, who has reported that the Hope of America event opened last year with an overtly Christian prayer delivered in Jesus’ name. Songs that were performed there also have religious overtones, with the “Hope of America” ditty stating, for instance, that America is “blessed from heaven above.” Large television screens were used during the 2022 event to display religious images, such as Christian congregations kneeling in prayer and individuals praying. One of the songs, titled “All Kinds of People,” featured different groups of students coming onto the stage dressed in costumes and performing choreography that parodied people from a variety of cultures and ethnic groups. While it is unlikely that Hope of America intends to be racist or insensitive through use of cultural appropriation, it belittles and disrespects in such performances the cultures and people that it is attempting to honor.

A vast amount of public school resources are reportedly spent annually in preparation for the Hope of America event. This includes music teachers using class time to teach all fifth-grade students songs and choreography for the event, as well as school resources being utilized to transport and chaperone students at a dress rehearsal for the event and to the event itself. When teachers raised objections about school participation, they were told they did not have a choice in the matter. School administrators have additionally pressured teachers to support the event and convince students to participate. Any student who had chosen not to participate last year was left behind while all participating teachers and students spent the school day at Hope of America.

“We write to ask that the Alpine School District take action to ensure that its faculty and staff do
not take an active role in organizing and instructing students in preparation for this private
religious event in the future,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence writes in one of the 18 letters mailed out regarding the Hope of America event. “The district has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and not place its students in situations where they will be coerced into participating in religious practices.”

It is illegal for a public school to sponsor or participate in an event that includes prayer, FFRF reminds the public school districts. Elementary students are especially vulnerable to coercion by teachers and school administrators due to their age and their desire to fit in with their peers and please their teachers. Fifth-grade students will perceive that the event, and the prayers that take place during it, are school-sponsored. Fifth graders cannot be expected to appreciate the distinction between a government-sponsored and a privately sponsored event especially when they are preparing for that event during class time. And, FFRF emphasizes, it is not a reasonable solution to make students who opt out of this event sit in the hallway while their classmates learn songs for their performance or miss a day of school during the dress rehearsal.

However, one of the most damaging aspects of the Hope of America event is that through the use of prayer and religious overtones it teaches students that belief in God is part of respecting one’s country. This is a toxic notion and could not be further from the truth. We are not a Christian nation, FFRF notes. Our Founders were particularly wary of forming a country that commingled religion with government. That is why they drafted a secular Constitution that effectively formed “a wall of separation between church and state.” This principle extends to keeping religion out of our public schools.

Since Hope of America includes opening and closing prayers and uses religious overtones to falsely equate religiosity with patriotism, public schools cannot participate in this event. FFRF is therefore asking that the 18 Utah school districts and educational institutions ensure that faculty and staff do not take an active role in organizing and instructing students in preparation for this private religious event in the future. FFRF demands that schools may not supply public school students or use school time, resources and funds to participate in and promote this religious event.

“Public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Hope of America dangerously equates Christian nationalism with patriotism. All these school districts need to immediately rescind their support and participation.”

You can read one of FFRF’s letters here. The Utah school districts or educational entities that FFRF has contacted are: Alpine School District, American Leadership Academy, Ascent Academies, Athlos Academy, Box Elder School District, C.S. Lewis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Jordan School District, Juab School District, Lincoln Academy, Nebo School District, Noah Webster Academy, Odyssey Charter School, Ogden School District, Provo City School District, Ranches Academy, Reagan Academy, and Timpanogos Academy.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members nationwide, including hundreds of members in Utah. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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