Legal group asks Johnson schools to reinstate Bible references in ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’

Protesters carrying signs and waving banners stood outside the Johnson County Board of Education office Monday to oppose removal of religious references from school plays and other programs.
Protesters carrying signs and waving banners stood outside the Johnson County Board of Education office Monday to oppose removal of religious references from school plays and other programs. The Paintsville Herald

Attorneys for a national legal organization advocating for the right of people to express their faith sent a letter to Johnson County school officials asking that biblical references be restored to the student play “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Matt Sharp, an attorney with Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said it was contacted by and is now representing Joey Collins, whose daughter is a cast member in the play that is scheduled for Thursday at W.R. Castle Elementary School.

Superintendent Thomas Salyer said on Tuesday that, following a complaint, he consulted with legal counsel and determined that biblical references should be removed from that play and other Christmas programs in the Eastern Kentucky school district.

For the third day on Wednesday, people planned to gather outside district offices in Paintsville to protest the deletion of biblical references.

“There is no violation of the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ by allowing children to learn about theater and the origins of Christmas through participating in a stage version of this beloved program that contains the same religious elements as the television version…,” the letter Sharp sent to the district on Tuesday said. “Given that courts have consistently held that schools may organize and sponsor Christmas programs and performances that include religious songs and study the historical origins of Christmas, there is no basis for the District’s decision to censor the religious aspects of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’”

Sharp, the organization’s legal counsel, said he had not heard from Salyer or other school district officials by noon on Wednesday.

Salyer was away from school district offices Wednesday at a meeting, a district staff member said.

In “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a play based on the annual television special, the character Linus recites passages from the Bible: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”

Linus also says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

In making his decision, Salyer told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday he was “acting on the advice” of his attorney and officials from other agencies in the state and was trying to meet the letter of the law.

An ACLU Kentucky spokeswoman said Tuesday that Johnson school district officials were making an appropriate decision.

Meanwhile, Sharp said that his recommendations to school district officials are “constitutional.”

“We would even be willing to help the school district if the school district was sued” for putting the religious content back in the play, he said.

Sharp said he did not know what further action the organization might take.

“We are working with parents and exploring all options,” he said. “Our primary goal is to work with the school district if they are willing to do the right thing.”

“What we are telling the school is as long as you’ve got an educational purpose —which they do here of teaching theater, teaching music and teaching about the origins of Christmas —every court has said you can include these religious elements in the program,” said Sharp.

Sharp maintains that district officials made the decision to eliminate the religious references after receiving just one complaint.

“We write to encourage you not to give in to the demands of a single complaint,” the letter to district officials said.

On Tuesday, Salyer “for confidentiality reasons” said he would not discuss the specifics of the complaint the district received from someone opposed to religious references in the district’s Christmas programs.

Linda Conley said in an telephone interview Wednesday that she was one of the people protesting the decision to eliminate the religious references in Christmas programs.

“I just couldn’t sit back and say nothing, so we put this demonstration together,” she said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

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