Law School Case Brief
Freedom from Religion Found., Inc. v. Concord Cmty. Schs - 885 F.3d 1038 (7th Cir. 2018)
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting any law respecting an establishment of religion. U.S. Const. Amend. I. The United States Supreme Court has extended this protection to states and municipalities. The Supreme Court has employed at least three ways to assess whether a local governmental body, such as a school, violates the Establishment Clause: the endorsement, coercion, and purpose tests.
For nearly half a century, Concord High School (Elkhart, Indiana) spread holiday cheer with a "Christmas Spectacular" — a winter concert featuring an elaborate, student-performed nativity scene. While the Spectacular showcased the talents of Concord students, it also celebrated the holiday season, with a particular focus on Christmas. In August 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. (FFRF), a non-profit organization focused on defending the constitutional line between church and state, wrote a letter to the school's superintendent on behalf of one of FFRF's members, a parent of a Concord High School student. FFRF expressed concerns about the religious nature of the Spectacular's second half , specifically, a segment called “The Story of Christmas.” This part of the show included religious songs interspersed with a narrator reading passages from the New Testament. The District Court granted a preliminary injunction forbidding the school from performing the show. In response to the district court's ruling, Concord quickly edited the Spectacular further, and in 2015, the school observed the many cultural celebrations during the holiday season in its show. In 2016, both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court ruled that the 2015 show did not violate the Establishment Clause and granted partial summary judgment in favor of Concord. After supplemental briefing on whether the plaintiffs' challenges to the 2014 and proposed versions were moot, the court decided that they were not. It granted the plaintiffs a declaratory judgment that the 2014 and proposed versions were unconstitutional and awarded $10 in nominal damages; it denied plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction. Plaintiffs alleged that Concord’s alterations to the second half of the Spectacular were not enough to avoid a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Concord Community Schools sought appellate review.
Were Concord’s alterations to the second half of the Spectacular, as exhibited in its 2015 show, enough to avoid a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the 2015 performance, in its current form, would not cause a reasonable observer to believe that the school was signing off on a particular religious message given the secular first half, the nativity's lack of prominence, and the inclusion of other holidays besides Christmas. Moreover, the Court averred that the 2015 production did not impermissibly coerce individuals to support any religious beliefs; and the 2015 production did not have a religious purpose as its primary motivation. Hence, the Court held that the district court properly found that a school’s holiday show did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
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