New Jersey court rules elementary school should have allowed student to sing religious song

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

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

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SPLCView: This decision — which is consistent with similar rulings —once again reminds school officials that the key to deciding on mattersinvolving student religious speech is determining the school’s involvement.Contrary to the beliefs of many, religious speech on campus is not prohibited.It is entitled to the same protections as any other type of lawful speechprovided students — and not school officials — initiate and expressthe speech without school coercion. School officials at Frenchtown Elementarywould not be permitted to sponsor or promote a “Religious Talent Show,” but theycould sponsor a “Talent Show,” as they did here, for which some students coulddecide, on their own, that their best talent was to sing a gospel song. In thesame way, a student-edited publication is permitted to publish news storiesabout religious topics or opinions with a religious theme as long as thematerial is initiated, written and edited by students.     

Case: O.T. v. Frenchtown Elementary Sch. Dist. Bd. ofEduc., Civ. No. 05-2623
(FLW)(D.N.J. Dec. 11,2006)