The theater adaptation of a classic Christmas cartoon is at the center of a controversy in Little Rock, Ark., where an atheist group has complained about an elementary school's plans to take its students to see the production of "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown" at a local church.
Teachers at Terry Elementary School recently sent a letter home to parents that says the play will "expose your child to Christianity" but "if you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school." The production is scheduled to be held at Agape Church on Friday, Dec. 14, during school hours, and one of the school's teachers attends the church and is to be a part of the play.
One upset parent told KARK-TV she doesn't want her daughter to see the play, but is letting her attend out of fear that her daughter will be singled out by her classmates. The mother also contacted the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF), which believes the school has violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by exposing students to a play that contains Christian themes.
The "A Charlie Brown Christmas" cartoon was created in 1965 and follows the story of beloved Peanuts character Charlie Brown on his quest to find the meaning of Christmas in the midst of commercialism that often dominates the holiday. In one of the cartoon's scenes, the character Linus quotes a portion of the Gospel of Luke in an attempt to explain to his friend how Christmas began.
Happy Caldwell, pastor of Agape Church, says several different schools were invited to watch the holiday production, which consists of acting, the singing of songs that are "widely sung in schools throughout the season" and performance by a live jazz band.
"We hope the complaint or question of a few does not override the opportunity for everyone," said Caldwell in a written statement to CP. "This production also included a food drive for area pantries, and we hope that purpose is not lost as well."
A Little Rock School District spokesperson says the district does not support or endorse any religion, and stated that the elementary school's principal has not directly received complaints from any parents.
LeeWood Thomas, a board member and media representative for ASF, says his organization has no problem with the production itself, though they argue it should not be watched as part of a school event. Even the cartoon version should be off limits, Thomas says, unless it is part of a broader explanation of various religious holiday celebrations.
"If they wanted to expose the children to lots of holiday celebrations that go on through various world views...if that's what they wanted to choose for exposing the kids to what the Christians believe, then that would be fine," said Thomas.
He wasn't sure whether or not his organization would file a lawsuit over the situation, though he hopes school officials will reconsider the trip altogether.
"Everybody's labeling us angry atheists, and we're not. We're not angry...Charlie Brown in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it does promote the Christian worldview, and that's not something you need to single out in the public sphere or in public classrooms," said Thomas.
But despite the challenge from ASF, Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, says the school is within its rights to let students participate in the trip.
"It's perfectly constitutional for the school to afford students the opportunity to go to a Charlie Brown play...especially when they don't require it, it's optional, parents can opt out," said Staver.
He later added, "They don't have the legal right to stop the school and the rest of the parents from participating in this program."