FFRF strongly objects to religious Maryland public school musical

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is strongly objecting to an upcoming religious musical at a Maryland public high school.

A concerned local parent contacted FFRF to report that Rising Sun High School in North East, Md., is performing from Thursday, March 9, the musical “Children of Eden,” directed by the school’s drama instructor, Tess Garrett. It is based entirely on the first nine chapters of the Book of Genesis from the Old Testament. Although the story in “Children of Eden” is not a strict retelling of the Genesis tale, the central devotional themes remain. Music Theatre International describes it as “a joyous and inspirational musical about parents, children and faith. . . . ‘Children of Eden’ is a wonderful show for faith-based groups looking for a large-scaled pageant with sweeping music.”

“Children of Eden” retains every crucial religious element of the Genesis story. And the musical’s lyrics are plainly religious, as well. As just one example, the song “World Without You” begins with Adam singing, “Oh my Father, Lord and Creator / You know that half my heart is yours / All that you gave me I can’t repay you / If I betray you, I’ll break in two / How could I live in a world without you?”

A central theme of the musical is obedience to Father, the character representing the god of the Old Testament. Students would reasonably understand that their school is promoting the musical’s messages that the bible is more or less historically accurate and that obedience to the Old Testament god is a virtue. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public school to sponsor a performance of this religious musical.

“The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages,” FFRF Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to D’Ette W. Devine, superintendent of Cecil County Public Schools. “This constitutional mandate is stronger within the context of our public schools. Moreover, courts have reviewed religious music in public schools and held that its use must comport with the Establishment Clause.”

In 2015, FFRF brought a federal lawsuit against a public school district in Indiana regarding a musical performance that included a “living nativity,” in which students re-enacted the nativity story from the New Testament while the school choir sang religious songs. Even though this performance only took up the last 20 minutes of a 90-minute performance, the court just yesterday ruled that the school district could not include a live nativity. With the “Children of Eden” musical, students re-enacting biblical stories is the entire performance. This would be an appropriate play for a faith-based theater group, but not for a public school. 

It is no defense that this is an event in which participation or attendance is voluntary, FFRF adds. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. Nonreligious drama students should not be forced to choose between participating in a religious musical or skipping a major drama production. About 35 percent of Americans born after 1981 (such as students of the school district) are nonreligious.

“There’s such a rich heritage of musicals to choose from that do not have a proselytizing message,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We trust in the future the district will choose plays that do not discriminate.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 27,000 members across the country, including 400-plus in Maryland. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

 

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