ACLU and Rutherford Institute Agree: The Show Must Go On

February 25, 1999 12:00 am

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WINSTON-SALEM, NC– Jessica Williams will stand up at Griffith Elementary School next week and belt out one of her favorite gospel songs, according to the Winston-Salem Journal Reporter.

”I cried because I wanted to sing it, and they wouldn’t let me. I feel happy now,” said Jessica, an 8-year-old third-grader.

She came home upset last week because she couldn’t sing ”Outside the Gate,” a song about leaving life’s troubles behind and entering the gates of heaven. The song uses the word “Lord.”

Jessica wanted to sing the song at a talent show this week, but school officials told her she couldn’t, because they might appear to be promoting one religion over another, according to the Reporter.

After his daughter complained. Jessica’s father contacted the Rutherford Institute, which is in Charlottesville, Va., and whose clients include Paula Jones.

Ron Rissler, the legal coordinator for the institute, then contacted school officials to explain that allowing Jessica to voluntarily sing her own song would not cross the constitutional line between separation of church and state.

”It took about a half-hour conversation with the principal, and I understood his concerns,” Rissler told the Reporter. “I just persuaded him that it was student-initiated speech, because they were allowing the students to choose their own songs.”

Some critics of the Rutherford Institute say that it crossed the line from civil rights to politics in its representation of Paula Jones in her sexual-harassment case, and other civil-rights agencies sometimes differ with the institute. But Rutherford was correct in this instance, said Deborah Ross, Executive Director of the North Carolina affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

”The basic thing is that freedom of religious expression allows individuals expression of religious belief, even in school,” Ross said. “And as long as the school is not promoting the religion and forcing other people to accept the religion, it’s fine.”‘

Source: Winston-Salem Journal Reporter, February 25, 1999

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