Subversion of School Policy

In addition to forbidding school choirs from singing the Lord's Prayer or other religious songs at graduation ceremonies, some schools restrict the outside activities of their choirs as well. To commemorate the first anniversary of the September 11 massacre, the Central Baptist Church in Sanford, Florida, organized a memorial service honoring the victims of the attacks. The church invited the local school board members, other community leaders, and the general public. The church asked the Seminole High School Gospel Choir to perform at the ceremony, which was to be held at the church. The gospel choir had been established twelve years before as a result of community demand for this type of music. The school district has three other choirs, all of which are secular. All four of the choirs are highly acclaimed and have received a number of trophies in competition. The gospel choir had some eighty-five members, every one of whom participated on a purely voluntary basis.

School officials, upon hearing of the invitation, barred the choir from participating. They didn't stop there, saying the voluntary participation by individual choir members was also forbidden as "subversive of school policy." The choir director said the students were heartbroken because they had been rehearsing diligently in anticipation of the service. Their names had already been printed in the program because the school was late in informing the church that the choir would be forbidden to attend.

The school district, in response to the controversy, quickly adopted a new policy that officially prohibited the school choir from taking part in any event located in or sponsored by a church. Reportedly, the district was even considering banning the gospel choir altogether.

The school's hostility toward religion went further: it prohibited choir members from praying among themselves prior to their practice sessions. When the students asked, then, whether they could share a moment of silence, the answer was no. This is when Liberty Counsel intervened on behalf of the aggrieved choir members. Liberty's president, Mathew Staver, happened to be the keynote speaker for the memorial event and was appalled with the school district's treatment of the choir. "I was shocked by the situation-not only because I believe it's blatantly unconstitutional, but it's also unbelievable that it would come on the day that they were going to celebrate those who died during the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and honor them in a patriotic celebration and a memorial service as well," said Staver.

Many citizens of Sanford were none too pleased, on the whole, with the school board's decision. They were especially upset with school superintendent Paul Hagerty's proposal to create a separate, after-school club that would be permitted to sing at religious events, provided it was clear that in so doing it did not represent the school or district. When residents appeared at a school board meeting and registered their strong support for the choir, three members requested an audience with Hagerty to discuss the issue. Following the meeting, Hagerty reversed himself, maintaining the choir's status and saying that it could perform at churches, so long as students were permitted to opt out if they didn't want to participate. Of course, Mathew Staver didn't consider this qualifier to be a significant burden. The choir members, he said, were always agreeable to such a provision. But Staver views it as a moot point. "No one has ever requested to opt out," he said. "They're in the gospel choir so they can sing gospel music. So, they're not going to opt out whenever they get an opportunity to sing gospel music at a religious event."

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