The ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a federal lawsuit against the Concord Community Schools for using a live Nativity scene in their annual Christmas concert.
The federal court documents, filed Wednesday in the United States District Court of Northern Indiana in South Bend, claim that the Nativity scene violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that the plaintiffs are entitled to nominal damages and legal fees.
Despite the fact that the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” may seem to a reasonable observer to have nothing whatsoever to do with the case at hand, U.S courts have a history of aggressive rulings prohibiting religious activities unrelated either to Congress or the establishment of religion.
In the 2000 ruling for Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a student-led prayer over the P.A. system before high school football games, a longstanding Texas tradition, violated the Establishment Clause.
In Concord, the high school’s Christmas Spectacular celebration has included a live depiction of the story of the birth of Jesus for decades.
The two atheist organizations brought the suit on behalf of an adult who lives in Elkhart County who attended the annual concert last year and his son, identified as “Jack Doe,” a student who is involved in the music department and is scheduled to perform during the 2015 show.
In their suit, the plaintiffs charge that the presence of a Nativity scene and the story of the birth of Jesus 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 principal purpose and effect of advancing religion.”
A YouTube video titled “Concord High School Christmas Spectacular Joy to the World Concord Performing Arts” features students singing songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Joy to the World.” Toward the end of the video, students dressed as shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, and Joseph form a crèche scene as a narrator reads the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi.
The school corporation’s leader and many community members came to the defense of the performance after the event was called into question by the atheist group, Freedom from Religion Foundation.
In September, Concord Superintendent John Trout said that the annual concert would remain part of the “holiday experience.”
“At the outset, let me state unequivocally that Concord Community Schools disagrees with the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s assertion and demand that any school celebration occurring the Christmas holiday season must be purely secular,” Trout said.
“That is not an accurate statement of the law. For more than 30 years, the Spectacular has been an important part of the Concord High School holiday experience. It will continue to be so,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.