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Indiana Christmas Spectacular Prompts Suit

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CN) - An Indiana high school's "Christmas Spectacular," complete with a live nativity scene, Bible narration and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," has prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Represented in the Oct. 7 complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that the performances in question have been produced for "several decades" at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.

"This event is set to be staged again in early December of 2015," the complaint states. "The plaintiffs - a nonprofit membership organization devoted to the separation of church and state, the father of a student at the high school who will attend the event, and a student at the high school who will participate in a separate segment of the event - all object to this portion of the 'Christmas Spectacular.'"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that "attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory" for hundreds of students enrolled in the school's performing-arts department.

Emphasizing that the Nativity scene and the story of the birth of Jesus are well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith, the presence of these tropes "at the 'Christmas Spectacular' is coercive [and] represents an endorsement of religion by the high school and the school corporation."

The foundation notes that complaints from its members caused it to warn Concord Community Schools this summer about its violations of the establishment clause.

"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," the foundation's attorney Sam Grover wrote. "The performance has a clearly devotional message and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school."

Though a representative for the school has not returned a request for comment, superintendent John Trout responded to the foundation's letter back in August that the foundation had not given "an accurate statement of the law."

"Concord Community Schools disagrees with the FFRF's assertion that any school celebration occurring during the Christmas holiday season must be purely secular," Trout wrote.

The superintendent went on to say that the live Nativity scene, the Scripture readings and the Christmas carols do not violate the First Amendment.

"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 assignment or performance," Trout wrote. "Nativity scene participation is purely voluntary and is only practiced after school hours."

Practices are held after school, the foundation concedes, but it notes that "run-throughs" - in which the entire Christmas Spectacular is rehearsed from beginning to end - happen during school hours.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group's co-president, said making participation in the live Nativity scene presentation voluntary does not "make it OK."

"Schools should not be putting on events in which students would feel compelled to absent themselves due to inappropriate religious content," Gaylor said in a statement earlier this week. "FFRF is suing to ensure that nonreligious and non-Christian students are able to fully participate in their school's winter concert. The Nativity represents the pinnacle of Christian belief and its most holy day. The spectacle ... is a blatant and egregious promotion of religion in a public school setting."

U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio has been assigned to the case. The foundation seeks injunctive relief and nominal damages of $1, as well as legal fees.

Madison, Wis.-based Grover represents the group does ACLU attorney Gavin Rose of Indianapolis.

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