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Kansas school district takes action after atheist group complains about worship songs

Challenger Intermediate School in Kansas' Goddard Unified School District
Challenger Intermediate School in Kansas' Goddard Unified School District | Screengrab/Google Maps

A public school district in Kansas is reportedly taking action in response to a complaint from an atheist group against a music teacher who taught her students Christian worship music and lessons based on the biblical story of Daniel.

A parent complained to the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation after learning that a teacher at Challenger Intermediate School in the Goddard Unified School District was using songs such as "Praise His Holy Name" and the African American spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" during her sixth-grade classes, according to FRFF.

FRFF, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state and often pressures local governments and schools to end perceived endorsements of religion, fired off a demand letter on Nov. 29 to Superintendent Justin Henry about what they consider an unconstitutional situation.

The letter by FFRF Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence urged the district to "immediately investigate this situation and ensure that it ceases teaching students religious worship songs and biblical stories." Lawrence alleges that the teacher — whose name was redacted in the publicly available version of the letter — suggested with her lessons based on Daniel that "one should have faith and believe in the Abrahamic god."

The letter also included lyrics to the songs at issue, one of which included, "Jesus, Jesus, how I love Thee! Shout Hallelujah! Praise his Holy name!" and "Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there's a cross for ev'ryone, and there's a cross for me."

"I set my foot on the Gospel ship / And the ship, it begin to sail / It landed me over on Canaan's shore / And I'll never come anymore," read the lyrics to another song about Daniel in the lion's den.

In her letter, Lawrence argues that the public school choirs must focus on "teaching secular music and lessons, not religious devotional music and bible stories." 

Lawrence added that there "is no need for a public intermediate school choral program to select religious worship music for students, and it is plainly unconstitutional for a public school choir teacher to teach students bible lessons."

FRFF argued that public schools are only permitted to use religious music during music instruction "in order to achieve legitimate secular educational goals," such as providing historic context for choral music.

"While there may be such instances where teaching religious songs in the public school context is permissible, schools should exercise caution when teaching impressionable students songs that are clearly devotional in nature," Lawrence wrote, saying it should be up to parents to decide whether and when to expose their children to such content.

FFRF maintains that instructing public school students with Christian worship music and "biblical stories in a devotional, religious manner" is a violation of the First Amendment, and expecting sixth graders to participate in such instruction is illegally showing favoritism to Christianity and alienating non-Christian students.

GUSD did not immediately respond to The Christian Post's request for comment. But the superintendent replied to the complaint by assuring the legal group the district would address the issue, according to FFRF.

"Thanks for providing this information," Superintendent Justin Henry told FFRF in an email. "Since receiving your email on Nov. 29, we have had the opportunity to provide [the teacher] this information and will be planning a meeting with all district choir instructors to ensure they understand the information."

FFRF said in a press release that it was "glad the district was able to change its tune to one that respects the Constitution."

"There's a distinct difference between a public school choir and a church choir, and the district did well recognizing that," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement about the district's response. "It's not a teacher's job to convert a student to their religion, no matter what tools they use to do so."

FFRF, which boasts more than 40,000 members and touts itself as the largest atheist legal group in the U.S., also recently took credit in October for pressuring Jackson County School District in Mississippi to reprimand a teacher handing out "prayer cards."

The same month, a public school teacher in Indiana was forced to remove a cross and Bible verse from her classroom after FFRF got involved.

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