An Oklahoma public elementary school removed its third-grade live Nativity scene from its annual Christmas production after receiving a threatening letter from an atheist group.
Christopher Line, staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), wrote to F. Andrew Fugitt at the Center for Education Law that the school district was committing a “constitutional violation”:
A concerned Edmond Public Schools community member has reported that each year, third grade teachers at Chisholm Elementary have students rehearse a live nativity scene, which students then perform at the school’s holiday concert in December. We understand that Chisholm students who participate in the nativity play various roles, including Mary and Joseph, etc.
While a public school can hold holiday concerts, religious performances and instruction that emphasize the religious aspects of a holiday are prohibited … A live nativity performance celebrating the story of Jesus’s birth is precisely the sort of religious endorsement prohibited by the Establishment Clause.
Line pressed the school district to “ensure that future school-sponsored performances will not include nativity scenes and that District teachers will not promote religion through class assignments.”
He added he expected the school district to respond to his letter in writing with an outline of steps it has taken to show it has submitted to FFRF’s demands.
Non-profit litigation organization Liberty Counsel, however, sent a letter to Bret Towne, superintendent of Edmond Public Schools, reassuring him that “a live Nativity scene as part of a balanced Christmas program is not an automatic Establishment Clause violation.”
Liberty Counsel observed in the case of Freedom From Religion Found., Inc. v. Concord Cmty. Sch., the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated:
Let us first start with the most inherently religious aspect of the show: the nativity scene. We are not prepared to say that a nativity scene in a school performance automatically constitutes an Establishment Clause violation. See Doe v. Wilson Cnty. Sch. Sys., 564 F.Supp.2d 766, 800–01 (M.D. Tenn. 2008) (finding a two-minute nativity scene in a 22-minute program acceptable because it “presented in a prudent, unbiased, and objective manner” “the traditional historical, cultural, and religious meaning of the holiday in America”). Each show must be assessed within its own context.
While many public school districts prefer to cave to similar threats from atheist groups, rather than incur legal costs to defend their positions, Liberty Counsel informed Towne it “stands ready … to provide assistance at no charge to Edmond Public Schools, if the District desires to resume a live Nativity in a school Christmas program.”
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel said in a statement FFRF “continually bullies and threatens people every Christmas, and that includes even children.”
“This organization mocks Christianity and does not seem to know what the Constitution means,” he added. “I hope this school district will not cave to their threats and continues to allow these children to celebrate Christ’s birth in their school production.”