Principal Learned Lesson in Liberty from Kindergarten Class

A case of school censorship in Terrytown, Louisiana, has ended with a kindergarten class being permitted to sing a song their principal had previously prohibited because she deemed it religious and decided it was therefore unconstitutional.

Leading up to a May 27 school-wide end-of-the-year ceremony, kindergarten teacher Tammy Honore and her Terrytown Elementary School class had been practicing a song for the program, which was to be conducted off the school premises in a gymnasium at a public park. Each kindergarten class was permitted to perform at the event, singing songs, performing skits or plays, or otherwise taking part in the closing celebration.

For the ceremony, Honore and her class had been practicing to sing “Can't Give Up Now,” a song recorded by the gospel music duo known collectively as Mary Mary. However, school principal Mary Ellen Heating objected to the selection, the lyrics of which talk about overcoming adversity, echoing the recurring theme, “I just can't give up now.” At one point, the words of the song state, “I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.”

Principal Heating objected to the word “he” in the song's lyrics, perceiving it to be a reference to God and therefore, in her estimation, inappropriate. Hence, she initially prohibited the kindergarteners from singing the selection they had prepared. The school administrator had a change of heart, however — after attorney Mat Staver, president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, threatened her with a federal lawsuit if she failed to lift her ban against “Can't Give Up Now.”

Honore had contacted Liberty Counsel and requested legal help. At the kindergarten teacher's request, Staver says, “We wrote an opinion letter saying that, not only was this song permissible, but it would be unconstitutional to censor this song solely because of its perceived religious viewpoint.” Also, he notes, the letter informed Heating that if she did not end this censorship, she would be not only “violating the Constitution,” but also “subjecting herself and the school to a federal lawsuit.”

Parents of some of the kindergarteners also applied pressure, urging the principal to allow the song to be performed. Eventually, after Heating saw that she had placed the school in a position to be sued and that parents were unhappy with her decision, she relented.

“When she realized what the law says on this issue and that she was violating the constitutional rights of these kindergarten students and their parents,” Staver says, “the principal decided to back down. So the good news is that the kindergarten class actually educated the educator.” And as a result, he adds, Ms. Honore's students were able to sing “I Can't Give Up Now” as part of the end-of-the-year celebration.

The head of Liberty Counsel believes Heating initially censored the song because she mistakenly construed the establishment clause of the First Amendment — the so-called separation of church and state — as requiring that she prohibit what she construed to be a religious presentation. However, the attorney points out, “Allowing other secular songs, plays, skits, or presentations [in the school program], while censoring this song for its alleged religious viewpoint, is unconstitutional, viewpoint-based discrimination.”

If Principal Heating had continued to ban “I Can't Give Up Now” based solely on its religious theme, Staver feels her action would have sent a terrible message to the young students at Terrytown Elementary. But instead, he says, the kindergarteners ultimately taught the school official “that religious speech is not an orphan to the First Amendment.”

(This article courtesy of Agape Press).

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