Christian song 'Awesome God' OK in after-school talent show, judge rules

TRENTON, N.J. (BP)--A New Jersey school district violated the constitutional rights of a second grade student last year when it prevented her from performing the song "Awesome God" at a talent show, a federal district judge ruled Dec. 11.

The girl, known only as "O.T." in the lawsuit, was prevented from singing the popular contemporary Christian song at the Frenchtown (N.J.) Elementary School after-school program when the district attorney and school superintendent said the song's religious content was inappropriate for the event. Previous talent shows had included students singing songs by Nirvana, Bon Jovi and Stevie Nicks.

Allowing "Awesome God" into the program -- known as "Frenchtown Idol" -- would have violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion, the attorney asserted. But U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson disagreed, saying the school's action amounted to viewpoint discrimination and violated the girl's First Amendment rights.

"Frenchtown Idol was not part of the school curriculum, but was, instead, a voluntary after-school event in which students were invited -- not required -- to participate," Wolfson, a nominee of President George W. Bush, wrote. "Frenchtown Idol participants were obligated to select their own pieces for the performance, and to develop and rehearse them at home.... [T]he speech at issue here -– a song selected and performed by an individual student -– was the private speech of a student and not a message conveyed by the school itself."

The Alliance Defense Fund represented the girl's parents and filed suit against the school in May 2005. In a rare instance of agreement, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed an amicus brief agreeing with ADF. The ACLU and the Alliance Defense Fund often oppose one another in legal battles. The U.S. Justice Department also supported the ADF suit with a legal brief.

“Religious speech should not be treated as second-class,” ADF attorney Jeremy Tedesco said in a statement. “... The effect of this court decision is that it permanently prohibits this school from discriminating against religious speech within the context of its school talent shows. [The] ruling is a tremendous victory for religious liberty and free speech, especially for students.”

The school had adopted talent show guidelines that said, among other things, songs must be "G-rated" and that a copy of song lyrics must be supplied to the school music teacher beforehand. According to court testimony, the teacher told the girl that the school superintendent, Joyce Brennan, would review "Awesome God" and determine its appropriateness. Brennan determined that the song was inappropriate because of its "overtly religious message and proselytizing nature," according to court records.

"[T]he song is not merely a statement of religious beliefs," Brennan said, according to the court. "Instead, the song is a pronouncement to all about the wisdom, power and magnificence of God, and of the need to follow the teachings of God. In my view, this song is the musical equivalent of a spoken prayer and constitutes a form of proselytizing."

Brennan said she would have permitted other songs, such as "God Bless the USA," "America the Beautiful," "Jesus Take the Wheel" and "Jesus is Just Alright with Me."

Wolfson, though, said Brennan's action "amounted to unlawful viewpoint discrimination." Wolfson asserted there indeed are "numerous" examples of "proselytizing" speech the school would have allowed.

"For example, the school would have permitted Frenchtown Idol performers to encourage audience members to: espouse a belief that it is important to take care of the earth, espouse a belief that it is important to help poor and impoverished people, and to lean on friends when they experience hardships," Wolfson wrote.

In a press release, the ACLU of New Jersey said, "[S]ince the school left the choice of songs up to the students (as long as they were G-rated), no reasonable observer (even a reasonable second grader) would have believed that the school endorsed the religious message behind the students' selections."

The case is O.T. v. Frenchtown Elementary School District Board of Education (05-2623).

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