A national nonprofit organization, self-described on its website as a “state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism),” claims that Oak Park and River Forest High School is violating the law by allowing one of its faculty members to participate in the high school’s Gospel Choir and, as of last week, was contemplating legal action.
In a statement released on Jan. 31, officials with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation — which boasts that is has over 26,000 members throughout the country — claimed that it was informed by a “local community member” late last year that the high school’s Gospel Choir was being led by a school employee, an alleged violation of the Equal Access Act.
The federal law, passed in 1984 in order to compel schools to allow students equal access to extracurricular activities, prohibits public employees from participating in religious meetings. Officials with FFRF said that the community member alerted them to videos on social media showing OPRF outreach coordinator Latonia Jackson, the Gospel Choir’s faculty sponsor, singing a Gospel song along with the choir during recent performances.
Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow with FFRF, said that his organization received a complaint from one of its members, who alerted him to the videos. He said they appear to show an adult female singing and directing Gospel songs, but that he could not confirm that it was Jackson.
Jayne said that, in addition to the videos, his organization takes issue with Jackson being listed in the freshman student planner as the choir’s “director” and with the choir’s “very plain promotion of religion beyond the music on their Facebook page.”
“It is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach its students songs of Christian worship,” Jayne wrote in a letter to District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams. “It is well settled that public schools may not advance or endorse religion. Federal courts have used public school gospel choirs as an example of an obviously religious activity that the school may not endorse. The problem is not solved by making participation in the religious group voluntary.”
Officials with FFRF said they contacted the district’s attorneys last December, after receiving the complaint, and requested that the district prohibit Jackson from participating with the choir. The nonprofit’s January statement claimed that the district’s attorneys “confirmed” that “[D200] staff members will not remain involved in a school gospel choir” and that the “gospel choir would be treated as a completely student-run club.”
“While we’re not against students putting together a gospel choir as a fulfilling extracurricular activity, public school staff can’t be involved,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re glad that the school district realized that it needs to tread carefully to avoid giving the appearance of official endorsement of such activity.”
In a series of emails sent to FFRF, which the nonprofit shared in its press release, Joseph J. Perkoski, an attorney with the school district’s law firm, Robbins Schwartz, said that the district had agreed to review the gospel choir’s compliance with the Equal Access Act while seeking to honor Gospel music’s “deep historic and cultural roots.”
Perkoski added that the district “has not received any other complaints” about the choir besides the one that FFRF references. Perkoski’s emails, and emails sent to Wednesday Journal from district officials on Monday, don’t mention anything about changing the nature of Jackson’s involvement with the choir.
“Specifically, the choir will affirm its student-initiated operation; emphasize the principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts inherent to the choral tradition; and, going forward, the choir will be mindful of its audience to ensure that the high school does not appear to be promoting the precepts of the religion,” wrote Perkoski in a Jan. 19 email to FFRF.
In a separate email statement sent Monday, district officials argued that, although the Act “does govern the extent to which district staff can lead and direct with certain groups, it does not prohibit district staff from being present in a supervisory and supportive capacity at student-initiated meetings.”
According to the district’s faculty handbook, faculty sponsors are “expected to supervise their groups during all activities (rehearsals, decorating for dances, preparing for parties, working on plays, practicing for athletes, engaging in intramural competing, etc…).”
The handbook doesn’t layout, in detail, whether or not lawful supervision extends to a faculty sponsor participating in what some may interpret as religious observance, such as directing a gospel choir.
Perkoski, however, indicated in his Jan. 19 email to FFRF that the district must balance the nonprofit’s concerns with the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, which extend to musical expression.
In a phone interview last Friday, Jayne cited federal court cases that he said supported FFRF’s position that Jackson’s involvement could constitute a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits governments from favoring one religion over another.
In a follow-up interview on Monday, Jayne said that his organization would consider future legal action if the district didn’t make changes to Jackson’s involvement with the choir, although that option, he conceded, may be distant.
He said FFRF only employs seven attorneys who may be working on no more than 15 lawsuits at any given time. The organization currently has 14 lawsuits ongoing, Jayne said. Last year, he said, they filed seven lawsuits and resolved 230 complaints — 166 of them against public schools — without having to sue.
Jayne said that, even if FFRF doesn’t take legal action against the district, Jackson’s participation with the choir could still expose the district to litigation from another individual or entity.
In an email statement sent to Wednesday Journal on Tuesday, District 200 Communications Director Karin Sullivan said that, after reviewing Jackson’s role with the choir, “we saw that there were instances where it may have gone beyond supervision, and we’ve made adjustments to fully comply with the law.”
“For instance, students will continue to choose music and direct as they have done, but now without input from the sponsor,” she wrote. “As the law allows, she will be there on the sidelines simply to provide supervision and ensure students are safe, and to provide support, for instance, answering questions about purely music concepts but not content (‘What key should this be?’).”
The nonprofit’s seemingly ubiquitous legal letters have attracted the ire of many religious organizations and local governments that argue that the group is attempting to micromanage local affairs and that the complaints are often frivolous.
“Their threatening letters cause many localities to cave for fear of being forced to pay for the expense of defending even against a frivolous lawsuit,” wrote one attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian advocacy organization founded by evangelist Pat Robertson.