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'Ave Maria' at graduation? Supreme Court declines case.

A superintendent banned an instrumental performance of ‘Ave Maria’ at a high school graduation ceremony because it seemed too religious. On Monday, the Supreme Court turned away the case.

By Staff writer / March 22, 2010

A superintendent has blocked an instrumental performance of ‘Ave Maria’ at a high school graduation on First Amendment grounds. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

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The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case charging that a school superintendent in Everett, Wash., went too far when she banned a student’s instrumental performance of “Ave Maria” at a public high school graduation ceremony because the title of the selection seemed too religious.

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The high court rejected the appeal over the dissent of Justice Samuel Alito, who said the decision of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals could provide a basis for “wide-ranging censorship of student speech that expresses controversial ideas.”

“A reasonable reading of the Ninth Circuit’s decision is that it authorizes school administrators to ban any controversial student expression at any school event,” Justice Alito said. “A decision with such potentially broad and troubling implications merits out review.”

The case involved a decision by school officials to bar a student group from performing a piece of music with a religious title because officials feared it might provoke controversy.

Saxophonist Kathryn Nurre filed a lawsuit claiming the school district engaged in unconstitutional censorship, acted with hostility toward religion, and treated her and fellow members of the school’s wind ensemble differently from others at the school.

The wind ensemble selected an instrumental-only version of “Ave Maria” to perform at the graduation. But school officials were worried that some local residents might complain about the religious content of the title. Administrators instructed the students to perform a clearly secular piece of music instead.

The students were not seeking to deliver a religious message, according to Ms. Nurre’s lawyer, W. Theodore Vander Wel. They simply liked the piece and felt they could perform it well.

“The censorship in this case involves political correctness run [amok],” Mr. Vander Wel wrote in his petition to the high court. Art and student expression, he said, had been “sacrificed to a heckler’s veto that seeks to sanitize even the remotest vestige of religion from public life.”

School officials defend their actions. “The school district is not seeking to deprive students of learning opportunities, nor is it seeking to purge altogether religious-inspired works from public education,” wrote Seattle lawyer Michael Patterson in his brief on behalf of the school district.

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