Three high school choirs in the Whitefish School District, located in Montana's Flathead Valley, have decided to go through with their holiday concert at a local church despite complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Dozens of student members of the Flathead, Glacier and Whitefish high school choirs performed their annual "Peace on Earth Community Christmas Celebration" at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kalispell Thursday. They will be performing a second time Friday evening. School officials decided to go through with the performance despite recent complaints from the ACLU and FFRF which argued the concert was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state due to public school involvement with church activity.
"We are concerned that public school students will be performing at a place of worship as part of an event that is expressly religious in nature," ACLU Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic wrote in a letter addressed to the principals of the three public schools on Tuesday, as reported by the Missoulian. "This situation poses serious constitutional concerns and demonstrates a lack of respect for the individual religious beliefs of the students involved." Both the ACLU and the FFRF requested that the schools end their participation in the concert.
The schools, however, decided to go on with the concert, arguing that the choir students participating were doing so on a volunteer basis and could pull out of the event if they felt uncomfortable. The students are singing both traditional Christmas songs as well as secular tunes.
"We would certainly not prohibit our kids from performing. We think the performance itself is a great experience for all of our kids and its volunteers," Kate Orozco, superintendent of the Whitefish school district, told ABC Fox Montana.
Additionally, Kalispell Superintendent Darlene Schottle wrote in a formal response to the ACLU that not allowing students to voluntarily participate in the concert could also be seen as a constitutional violation of the right to freely express one's religion. "One could interpret that by denying district students the opportunity to participate because of the Christian theme of the overall event might be in violation of the second half of the establishment clause, 'prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Students may 'opt out' of assignments and/or activities that might conflict with their belief system to assure that the district is not placing them in a situation they might find uncomfortable."
The ACLU responded by saying the schools were putting the students in a difficult situation by forcing them to possibly opt out of the concert, therefore making them look like an outsider.
The schools have reportedly been participating in the annual concert for five years. The city of Whitefish was also the focus of a recent lawsuit filed by the FFRF regarding a giant Jesus statue on government property near a ski resort atop Big Mountain. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.