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Freethought Today · April 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

More families join nativity suit

Two more parents have joined a lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana filed the original suit on Oct. 7, 2015, along with "Jack Doe," a student and member of the performing arts department, and FFRF member "John Doe," his father.

The new parent plaintiffs are also seeking anonymity to protect their families from the vitriol and open hostility this state/church violation has created. This hostility includes a death threat that was sent to FFRF in December.

The anonymously penned death threat targeted FFRF Staff Attorney and co-counsel Sam Grover and a family that some have speculated is the Doe family.

"I will make it my life's mission to one day (in the next weeks, months or even years) when you think this is all done and forgotten about, to find you and the [redacted family name]," reads the email. "I will cut you into pieces and feed you to the fishes in the Elkhart River (Please note that I will enjoy this)."

The missive ends on this note: "Do yourself a favor, and believe me, when I say: NO ONE WILL STOP ME!"

For several decades, Concord High has performed a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter.

Every performance for the public, of which there were four in 2014, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live nativity scene and a scriptural reading from the bible. During this segment, students at the high school portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds and angels," notes the original complaint. Attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department.

Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are "well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the high school, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."

U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio issued a temporary injunction on Dec. 2 barring the school from holding the nativity pageant with student actors.

The updated complaint also challenges the nativity enactment as it was modified during the 2015 Christmas Spectacular, in which the school used mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original show. Both versions exist solely to promote Christianity during a school-sponsored performance in violation of the Constitution.

"We had hoped the school district would simply do the right thing and adopt a neutral stance toward religion as it is required to do under the Constitution," says Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

"We are grateful to the new plaintiffs who have joined and strengthened our case, despite the backlash in the community," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This controversy shows how divisive it is to bring religion into our public schools."

Listen to Grover discuss the case on Freethought Radio during the Feb. 13 episode at ffrf.org/news/radio.