WASHINGTON — A school superintendent's decision to bar a second-grade girl from singing "Awesome God" in an after-school talent show is developing into an important showdown over the role of religious speech in public elementary schools.
The issue arose in May 2005 when an 8-year-old student in Frenchtown, N.J., was told that the song she'd selected to perform in the show was too religious.
To some religious groups the incident illustrates unconstitutional government hostility toward people of faith.
School officials defend the action, saying they don't op-pose religious songs but that the lyrics of "Awesome God" cross the line into proselytizing and thus are not appropriate for a show performed by and for young students.
Now, a year later, lawyers for both sides are asking a federal judge in Trenton, N.J., to decide whether school officials exercised reasonable judgment as educators in banning the song, or instead violated the second-grader's free speech and religious rights. US District Judge Stanley Chesler is expected to take up the case July 3.
"This is tolerance and political correctness gone awry," says Maryann Turton, the girl's mother. "This is a much bigger picture than just our daughter in our little town. It is going on everywhere."
The case has attracted the attention of the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based religious rights group that is representing the girl and her parents in a lawsuit against the school district. In addition, the civil rights division of the Justice Department and the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are filing friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the girl's right to sing "Awesome God" at the talent show.
School officials say the issue is being blown out of proportion. They say they offered to allow the girl to sing a different religious song, but the offer was turned down. Frenchtown School Superintendent Joyce Brennan says the "Awesome God" lyrics were too graphic and violent, and crossed the line into proselytism.
"The problem came with the words in the song that were not espousing what the child believed but rather indicating what other people should be believing," Ms. Brennan says.
The lyrics read in part:
There's thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fists
(Our God is an awesome God)
And the Lord wasn't joking
When He kicked 'em out of Eden
It wasn't for no reason
That He shed His blood
His return is very close
And so you better be believing that
Our God is an awesome God.
The US Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue of religious speech at the elementary school level. The justices have allowed students to use public school classrooms for religious meetings after school, but they have also struck down the offering of a student-led prayer prior to high school football games in Texas.
The Frenchtown case falls somewhere between those two decisions, analysts say. Judge Chesler must decide whether letting the girl sing "Awesome God" would be a school endorsement of a particular religious outlook in violation of the First Amendment's "establishment clause," or merely be a recognition of the girl's right to express her faith under the "free speech" and "free exercise" clauses.
Brennan says part of her job as superintendent of the 136-student Frenchtown school district is deciding what is appropriate in terms of behavior, dress, and atmosphere at school activities. "We have people of all faiths here, not just Christian. And for me to say 'OK, you'd better believe in this thing,' maybe my Muslim parents wouldn't understand that, nor would their children," Brennan says.
The superintendent says she has no objection to students singing devotional songs professing one's own beliefs. "I have approved many religious songs in my day," she says. "But when you cross that line and say that someone else should believe this particular thing or else ... then that is why I made the decision I made, because it did cross that line."
Mrs. Turton disagrees. "We know there are certain guidelines. We are not talking about having a tent revival meeting in the middle of math class," she says. "We are talking about an after-school talent show where children were supposed to be able to perform something of their own choosing that they enjoyed."
Turton adds, "To take that and make it dirty and wrong and icky – that is just wrong. I didn't like seeing my child made to feel that way and I wouldn't want anybody else's kid to feel that way either."
The school's actions are indefensible, says Turton's lawyer, Demetrios Stratis, allied with the Alliance Defense Fund. "They are sending a message to young impressionable minds that religion is somehow radioactive, and it's not," he says. "Students do have the right to sing about their awesome God, especially in this context and in this forum."
The case involves protected student speech rather than government-endorsed speech, agrees the ACLU's Edward Barocas. "This was not a mandatory assignment. This took place at an after-school event that was voluntary where the individual student could decide what song to sing or what skit to perform," Mr. Barocas says. "It would be a different analysis if the principal sang the song 'Awesome God' over the loudspeaker at school."
School board lawyer Russell Weiss says Superintendent Brennan has been consistent in strictly imposing her view of what was appropriate for a school talent show.
"She required that two other acts be revised to remove content inappropriate for younger students," Mr. Weiss writes in his brief to Judge Chesler. "One was a Bon Jovi song called 'You Give Love a Bad Name,' which was revised to change the word 'Hell' to 'Heck.' The other was a passage from Shakespeare (Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1), known as the 'Witches Scene,' which was revised to delete gruesome images, including the complete elimination of all the lines of the Third Witch."