by Max Brantley
In case you missed it, Channel 4 reported recently on Terry School parents unhappy about a planned outing to Agape Church to see a production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
The parents felt the production promoted Christianity, but were reluctant to have a child sit out the trip.
The Fox News echo chamber has run wild with the story nationally, seeing it as a handy fit for the "War on Christmas" meme that it slavishly promotes each year.
What's wrong with the little round-headed boy? Nothing. But really. A field trip to an evangelical church to see a play with an overtly Christian message delivered in part by Scripture readings? A play in which the teacher has a role? A play promoted by a memo that says candidly:
"This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child's creative imagination in the area of dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending)."
Proselytizing it is. And pretty cold to the potential feelings of young kids, but that's the tyranny of the majority at work. It's not even close, really. No public school district should officially promote it, certainly in a way that leaves any families or children marginalized. I've asked the Little Rock School District if the trip will go on as scheduled. Parents and kids are free to attend on their own time, of course.
I like the show, too, having just reviewed a chunk of it on YouTube. But I'm with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, which has quite a bit to say on the subject in the non-warlike, reasonable release that follows:
Secular Group Denies "War on Christmas" Charge
(Little Rock, Arkansas: November 21, 2012.) The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers today rejected the claim that it is making war on Christmas.
The group came under fire this week when it championed concerns voiced by parents of a local elementary school child. The child's school had organized a field trip to a church to see a play with religious themes, and the parents felt this was a violation of the separation of church and state that put them and their child in an awkward situation.
"Those who stand up for the rights of children to be free from coercion aren't making war either on religion or Christmas," said ASF spokesperson LeeWood Thomas. "Rather, this is a case of a church forming an alliance with local government to violate religious freedom. So we in the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers feel compelled to take a stand on behalf of the parents under the U.S. Constitution."
The ASF is a Little Rock-based secular group which, in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, acts as a watchdog for violations of the separation of church and state.
The controversy began when Terry Elementary School notified parents of a field trip to see "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown," a live theatrical production at a Little Rock evangelical church. The notice said, "This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child's creative imagination in the area of
dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending)."
The parents in question, who wish to remain anonymous, felt they were being forced to choose between maintaining their family religious beliefs versus their child being singled out and possibly ostracized or bullied. So they contacted the ASF last week for help.
"Merely allowing a child to opt out of a school-sponsored religious activity during the winter holidays is no solution," said Anne Orsi, a Little Rock attorney and ASF vice president. "Such a situation exposes the children of minority faiths and outlooks to majority pressure and victimization. Thus the religious rights of children are being violated along with their right to privacy."
The Charlie Brown play is scheduled for the weekend of December 14-16, and a charity drive is associated with it.
"There are plenty of non-religious theatrical productions at secular venues in Little Rock," LeeWood Thomas added. "There is no need to mingle religion with public education. Public schools shouldn't take children to churches to see plays with religious content during regular classroom instructional time."
Anne Orsi spoke to a local television reporter on the matter earlier this week, after which the story was picked up by news networks and bloggers across the country. Comments then began appearing online accusing her group of waging war on Christmas and on Charlie Brown.
"This isn't about Charlie Brown or Christmas," Orsi said today. "It's about the separation of church and state. Public schools educate children of every faith tradition. We must be sensitive to that and never allow public schools to promote one brand of religion over any other."
Those familiar with "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the annual animated television special on which the play is based, have noted that the story has significant New Testament content. "Not every religion accepts the New Testament as holy," Thomas said. "Therefore, such a sectarian religious bias in a school-sponsored event excludes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others, including the non-religious."
"This puts non-Christian parents in a quandary," Orsi added. "Their children want to attend a play with beloved characters rather than be warehoused in another classroom. If the parents deny their child permission to attend the
play on religious grounds, their child will be singled out as being different from the majority of her or his classmates. And this awkward situation is unacceptable."
The parents who originally raised this issue chose to remain anonymous to protect their children from potential bullying as well as possible backlash from their child's teacher, who has a role in the production. With the matter having gone public, angry and threatening comments seen on blog posts and news sites have reinforced their concerns. Thus the parents, together with the ASF, are asking that all Little Rock public schools respect the law
requiring the separation of church and state.