DUNLAP, Ind. – An Indiana school district is resisting calls from atheist groups to cut a Nativity scene from its Christmas Spectacular celebration, prompting a federal lawsuit.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Concord Community Schools in U.S. District Court on behalf of a student in the music program and his father, though neither are named in the litigation, The Elkhart Truth reports.
The lawsuit centers on the last 15 minutes of district’s annual Christmas Spectacular, which involves a Nativity scene with figures like Mary, Joseph and the three wise men acting out a reading from the Bible.
“The Nativity scene and the story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith,” according to the lawsuit. “Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the high school and the school corporation, has no secular purpose and has the principle purpose and effect of advancing religion.”
The lawsuit asks the court to force Concord schools to cut out the nativity scene for the 2015 celebration and all future productions, as well as legal fees, damages and “other proper relief,” according to the Truth.
The FFRF sent Concord Community Schools superintendent John Trout a letter in August with a threat of litigation if the Nativity scene wasn’t eliminated, and the district’s response forced FFRF to follow through.
Trout told the school board in September he “unequivocally” disagreed with FFRF’s interpretation of the law and vowed to continue what’s been a Christmas tradition in the district for three decades, The Washington Post reports.
“That is not an accurate statement of the law,” Trout said of the FFRF letter. “As always, if a student or parent finds objectionable any portion of the Spectacular, or any school assignment for that matter, that student is free to opt out of the performance or assignment.”
FFRF attorney Sam Grover told the Post the family that filed the lawsuit likes the Spectacular in general, just not the Nativity scene.
“The whole family really does enjoy the winter concert,” he said. “They just don’t want to be part of the Nativity portion. They don’t want to be in a Christian propitiation of what should be a community event.”
ACLU senior staff attorney Heather Weaver seemed pretty confident the family has a strong legal case.
“Incorporating a live nativity scene and scriptural reading into a public school concert clearly violates the law,” she told Refinery29. “While public schools may recognize and celebrate the secular aspects of winter holidays, they may not endorse or promote religious beliefs and they may not use school functions to coercively subject students to religious messages and proselytizing.”
Grover acknowledged that the community in general seems to oppose FFRF’s efforts, but said the community’s perspective is irrelevant.
“We’re aware that many members of the community are really upset that the Nativity scene is being challenged,” he told the Post. “They don’t see why someone in the minority should be able to prevent something the majority wants.
“It’s not up to a public vote whether the school can promote Christianity.”