Two national organizations Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Concord Community Schools [in Indiana] over a live Nativity scene that has been part of the high school’s Christmas Spectacular celebration for decades.
The suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the Christmas Spectacular — which ends with a scriptural reading from the Bible as religious figures such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men act out the scene — endorses religion in a manner that is illegal in a public school.
The complaint, filed on behalf of a Concord student and his father, asks the U.S. District Court to instruct school officials not to present the live Nativity scene in 2015 or in the future. The complaint also seeks nominal damages of $1 and legal fees, as well as “other proper relief.”
”The Nativity scene and the story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith,” the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint. “Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the high school and the school corporation, has no secular purpose and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion.”
The lawsuit is not a complete surprise to Concord Community Schools, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter regarding the issue to Superintendent John Trout in August. The letter asked the high school to drop the Nativity scene and keep the performance entirely secular. Sam Grover, an attorney with the foundation, said at the time that if the school continued with its Nativity scene, it would expose itself to the risk of legal action.
“It is illegal for a public school to endorse a religion to students by organizing a religious performance, such as acting out the exclusively Christian legend of Jesus’ birth,” Grover wrote. “The performance has a clearly devotional message and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school.”
But at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Concord School Board, Trout made it clear the district would not be backing down and that the Nativity scene will remain part of the holiday performance. The community has largely stood behind Trout in defense of the Nativity scene. The performance in question has been an important part of the Concord holiday experience for more than 30 years, Trout said.
At that meeting, Trout addressed those in attendance and said Concord Community Schools “unequivocally” disagrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s assertion that any school celebration occurring during the Christmas holiday season must be entirely secular.
“That is not accurate statement of the law,” he said at the meeting. “As always, if a student or parent finds objectionable any portion of the Spectacular, or any school assignment for that matter, that student is free to opt out of the performance or assignment.”
Although the Christmas Spectacular is mostly secular, with songs like “Let It Snow” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a live Nativity scene follows a brief intermission to end the show. The scene, where students gather on stage with a manger backdrop, a cradle and the Star of Bethlehem, lasts about 15 minutes.