Kalispell, Montana, is the largest city and commercial center of northwest Montana. However, the town’s population is just over 20,000. I have never had the privilege to visit Kalispell, but have enjoyed vacationing in Montana, a great traditionalist state with many wonderful and friendly people. All Montanans seem to hunt and fish, and children learn to shoot guns when they learn to read. Further, there are many independent-minded ranchers and cowboys among Montanans. However, Kalispell has become the location for some Christmas grinches who seek to disrupt Christmas. As part of my ongoing series about Christmas grinches, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana (“ACLU-MT”) recently sent letters to two school districts demanding they cancel the participation of school choirs at a traditional Christmas concert. The “Peace On Earth Community Christmas Celebration” (wouldn’t that be a wonderful evening to praise God and worship our Savior?) included two government school choirs among more than ten musical performances at a two-day Christmas celebration at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kalispell.
But the grinches at the ACLU-MT and FFRF contend that the participation of the school choirs in the Christmas event gives the appearance that the school districts are endorsing or advancing a specific religious message or denomination. Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Darlene Schottle has stated that participation by the school choirs neither endorses nor promotes a religion or religious message, and does not violate anyone’s rights. She further stated that participation is simply an opportunity for students to perform for the community at a public venue and does not equate to sponsorship. However, if students wish to opt-out of performing at the event, they can do so. However, Niki Zupanic, ACLU-MT’s Public Policy Director, believes this is not good enough. She says that students are put in a difficult position when asked to make such a decision. “It creates personal conflict. Students want to fit in and they may be labeled as a troublemaker.” (Yes, I can certainly imagine that Montana teens never learn to think independently, or to stand on their own two feet.)
Dr. Schottle notes that when students perform for a group such as Rotary, or at a nursing home, the school is not endorsing the group’s ideology, or the business practices of the facility or owners. “If any group, whether faith-based or not, wants our students to perform and it fits into our schedule, we quite frequently allow students to perform,” said Dr. Schottle. Accordingly, the school districts have rejected the demands of the FFRF and ACLU-MT.
Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”) sent Kalispell and Whitefish Public Schools a letter commending the school districts for rejecting the attempts to stop student choir members from voluntarily participating in the community Christmas festival. ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Rory Gray said:
Schools should not have to think twice about whether they can allow choirs to participate in community Christmas events. Courts have unanimously allowed students to sing Christmas carols at school. Nothing changes when they sing the same Christmas songs at a community festival instead. We commend the districts for rightly ignoring the baseless threats delivered by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Alliance Defending Freedom letter explains that “every federal court to examine the issue has determined that including Christmas carols in school choir performances fully complies with the First Amendment.” These performances at a church or elsewhere do not promote religion but allow students “to serve the wider community with their talents, see and learn from other choirs’ techniques, and gain valuable performance experience in front of a large audience.” A copy of the ADF letter is available here. The letter also emphasized that ADF is ready to freely assist the school districts public schools if the ACLU and the FFRF take legal action against the schools or the choirs. It seems to me that as the people of Montana live daily with wolves and grizzly bears, I can imagine that they are not going to be intimidated by the wolves and grizzly bears from the FFRF and the ACLU-MT. Kudos to the fine people of Montana and to Dr. Schottle, and Merry Christmas to all of our friends in Kalispell and Flathead County, Montana.