Court rules school should have allowed student to sing religious song

NEW JERSEY — A federal district court ruled Dec. 11 that an elementary school infringed on the First Amendment rights of one of its students when it prohibited her from singing the popular Christian song “Awesome God” during a school-sponsored talent show almost two years ago.

The parents of Olivia Turton sued the Frenchtown Elementary School District after administrators there refused to allow the second-grader to sing the song, which was described by administrators as the “musical equivalent of a spoken prayer,” The Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger reported.

Joyce Brennan, superintendent of the school district and principal of Frenchtown Elementary, reviewed the lyrics to “Awesome God” at the request of the talent show’s organizer, court documents say. The organizer was concerned about the religious nature of the song.

According to the court’s opinion, Brennan determined the lyrics were inappropriate for the talent show because of their “overtly religious message and proselytizing nature” and told Turton she could not sing the song. Turton’s parents objected to the principal and the school board, but the school board’s attorney agreed that Turton should not be allowed to sing the song at the talent show, and Turton’s parents filed the lawsuit.

The court said in its decision that Turton’s First Amendment rights had been violated, and that the singing song did not violate the Establishment Clause, or the separation of church and state, because the event was voluntary.

“Frenchtown Elementary did not aim to convey its own message through the medium of the school talent show,” the opinion reads. “Instead, the school invited students to participate in a talent show and flaunt their particular creative talents and skill through their individual performance selections.”

Turton was represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group that advocates for religious freedom. Turton was also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Now in fourth grade, she will sing “Awesome God” at the next school-sponsored talent show, and the school district will not appeal the ruling, the Star-Ledger reported.