A Church-State Violation At A Mass. Public High School Strikes A Sour Note

After receiving a letter from Americans United about a church-state violation in November, officials at a Massachusetts public high school have decided to cancel a planned Easter Mass performance by the school choir at a church in Italy.   

Groton-Dunstable Regional High School’s Chamber Choir was set to perform at the St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padua as a part of a week-long trip to Italy and Croatia. Americans United took action after a complaint from a former school committee member who said she believes the school is violating church-state separation. Americans United shares those concerns.

Over the years, the award-winning Chamber Choir has been invited to perform in northern Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic. That’s fine, but this year they planned to take part in a religious service – which is not fine. A public school simply can’t expect its students to do that. And no, the fact that the students might want to do it doesn’t mean it’s OK. A majority of students might want to have official prayers over the loudspeaker every day or learn about creationism in science class. A public school still can’t do those things.

St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, Italy -- not a good place for a public school field trip.

“A public school planned to take a group of students to a church worship service to perform religious music and this doesn’t strike anyone as a violation of the separation of church and state?” AU attorney Ian Smith asked.

AU lawyers also objected to the performance because it didn’t promote inclusivity.

“It’s better to plan school activities so that they’re inclusive of everybody to begin with,” AU Legal Director Richard Katskee said. “That’s what happens when the school plans a student trip from the outset that everybody can participate in, regardless of religion.”

Any religious service at a house of worship is exclusive to those who believe in that particular religion. A public school sponsoring a religious performance at a church goes against the fact that public schools are for everyone, not just Christian or religious students.

Many people in the area are not reacting well to AU’s protest. Although AU did not publicize the letter, it found its way to the media, and the story started gaining traction this week. Since then, we’ve received several emails, social media posts and more accusing us of stomping on the students’ cultural experience. (Well, no. See, the students are still going on the trip – but they won’t be providing the music at a house of worship on the day that most Christians consider to be the most holy day of the year. We’re not denying anyone a “cultural experience.”)

As usual, some people miss the point. One e-mail read, “I have an idea. Why don’t you people mind your own business?” (Hello! We’re acting on behalf of a local resident.) Another advised us that we “should all be ashamed for supporting” the school’s decision. (We’re not ashamed. We’re always proud to stand up for what’s right.)

And my favorite was the one saying AU is a “pathetic organization that apparently has nothing better to do than to ruin the trip of a lifetime for a bunch of teenagers.”

Again, these email or social media reactions miss the point, which is that this specific performance is a clear violation of church-state separation. Also, it’s unfair to the students. They shouldn’t have to choose between their faith (which may teach that they shouldn’t be attending and performing at another religion’s service) and a once-in-a-lifetime trip. That’s not a choice that the public schools can or should ever force on any student. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t constitutional.

As the Nov. 16 letter read: “Taking public school students to worship services as part of a public school activity is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Even the school’s lawyers advised canceling the performance because they knew they couldn't win. That’s how clear-cut this violation was.