(Photo: Hillsong Church)
An Idaho first-grader's plan to perform a song by worship singer Chris Tomlin using sign language for a talent show is back on track after the school's principal originally banned the entry, deeming the song "too religious."
Lena Whitmore Elementary School reversed its decision after the Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the school and district officials pointing out that banning the performance would be unconstitutional.
The Christian-based lawyers group released a statement on Friday that said ADF remains concerned about a district policy that will allow free speech violations to continue if it is left unchanged.
"Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas. Removing the voice of faith from schools sends a message to all students that religion is something to be ashamed of," said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Matt Sharp. "The school district is off to a good start in allowing this performance to occur, but it needs to revise its unconstitutional policy so that this doesn't happen again."
The first-grade student decided to participate in her school's annual talent show by performing sign language to the song "We Fall Down" by Tomlin, according to ADF. Although an audition panel responded positively to her audition performance of the song, the school's principal later contacted the student's mother to let her know the song was "too religious" to be performed in the talent show.
The principal cited a district policy on "Private Religious Expressions" that ADF lawyers say inaccurately states that "the right of private religious expression in school buildings, on school grounds or at school sponsored events does not include the right to have a 'captive audience' to listen."
On behalf of the student, ADF sent a letter to the school in an attempt to point out the disagreement with the policy.
"Because the talent is the student's personal expression, and not that of the school, it is subject to full protection under the First Amendment," the ADF letter stated.
"Under Supreme Court precedent, unless particular student expression 'materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,' a student's personal religious expression is entitled to full constitutional protection under the First Amendment."
ADF stated that after the school and the district received the letter, the school agreed to allow the performance, which will take place Tuesday.
"The school district must do what's right for its students and change its unconstitutional policy. That the district has agreed to review it is a good sign. As long as the policy is in place, the district remains exposed to potential legal liability," Sharp said.
The district's superintendent, Dale Kleinert, said that the principal misinterpreted the district's policy, Fox News reported. Kleinert was apparently unaware of the problem until he received a letter from ADF.
"As soon as we got the letter, I said, 'whoa this is not right,'" Kleinert said, noting that he immediately got in his car, drove to the school and told the principal to "get this fixed," according to Fox News.