Chicago, IL – Liberty Counsel warned the Itasca Public School District that it cannot censor two students, Christiana and Gloryanne Gatbunton, who wanted to sing portions of the song “Call on Jesus” in the talent show at the Elmer H. Franzen Intermediate School just outside of Chicago. The school reversed course and now the students will be able to perform the song.
Each year the Franzen School invites students to prepare two-minute acts for its annual talent show. The students select the music, material, and costumes with the help of their parents and then submit an information form, present their act at an organizational meeting, and finally perform during an evening talent show. The students’ mother, Janice Gatbunton, filled out the form, stating the sister act featured a duet of the song “Call on Jesus.” Both Principal Jeffrey Murphy and Superintendent Marcia Tornatore called Mrs. Gatbunton, stating the song had “religious overtones” and they had been advised by counsel that the “separation of church and state” required them to eliminate such material from the student talent show.
In a talent show, public schools are prohibited from banning student acts because of their religious perspective. By opening a forum for student expression, permitting expression so long as it is not religious establishes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The Gatbunton sisters’ performance would be received by any reasonable person as reflecting a personal inspirational statement of the two singers, not their school. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges, “private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression.” This is true even where students’ private religious speech occurs in a school setting. Shortly after Liberty Counsel warned that its censorship crossed the line, the district announced that it reversed its position.
Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented: “Public schools cannot censor Christian viewpoints when other secular viewpoints are permitted. Students expressing a Christian perspective during a talent show do not establish a religion. Schools that censor such viewpoints violate the First Amendment. We are pleased that the school officials responded quickly and acted to protect the constitutional rights of their students.”
This column was circulated as a news release by the Liberty Counsel. www.LC.org