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Decision Number
Religious Music
J.T. and J.K.
New Hampton Community School District
Full Text

The abuse of discretion standard requires the Board to look only at whether a reasonable person could have found sufficient evidence to come to the same conclusion as the school district. If a decision was not based upon substantial evidence or was based on an erroneous application of law we will find the decision is unreasonable. The Board may not substitute its own judgment for that of the school district. The question in this appeal is whether or not the District correctly applied the law, in this case the Establishment Clause, to the facts and circumstances in this case.The Appellants argue that the District's traditions of performing songs at various churches on a Church Tour, and singing songs with religious text at the Winter Music Festival, and singing "In this Very Room" at the Coffeehouse Concert conveys preference for Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that the federal government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." To sustain a claim under the Establishment Clause the Appellants must allege facts indicating that the District has no clearly secular purpose for its activities. Conduct that is entirely motivated by a purpose of advancing religion would violate the Establishment Clause.There is no evidence offered by the Appellants that show these activities were chosen for a non-secular purposes. Instead the allegations focus solely on the religious component of the Choir's activities. This is not enough to show a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The Appellants must allege facts indicating the choir curriculum or choir activities have the principal or primary effect that either advances or inhibits religion. "To allow students only to study and not to perform (religious art, literature and music when) such works have developed an independent secular and artistic significance would give students a truncated view of our culture."

The District has articulated legitimate secular reasons for maintaining this song, which include teaching the students to blend their sounds, to work on pure tones, and to work on their vowel sounds. Although the song is accompanied by circling the audience and the students holding hands, we find these actions are for secular reasons and not to endorse religion. As a whole we believe a reasonable person who understands the history behind the song would find that the song is not advancing or endorsing religion. The evidence shows that the District allowed A.T. to opt out of the above performances that she found objectionable with no effect on her grade. A.T. was also allowed to choose alternate assignments for herself. As such A.T.'s practice of her own religious views were not inhibited by these activities.

We believe that an objective observer would conclude that the District's activities, without more, are religiously neutral activities. The District has enacted three policies concerning religion in its curriculum: 1) Code No. 603.8 - Teaching About Religion; 2) Code No. 604.5 - Religious-Based Exclusion from a School Program; and 3) Code No. 606.4 - School Ceremonies and Observances. The Appellants have not challenged the policies as written. These policies are in line with the Establishment Clause precedent outlined above and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. We find that the District has complied with its policies and correctly applied them to the facts.

In sum, we find that the NHCSD Board correctly applied Establishment Clause jurisprudence to the facts and circumstances before it. Furthermore, a reasonable person could conclude that the activities of the District have clear secular purposes and do not violate the constitution. Thus, this Board cannot find an abuse of discretion in the local board's decision to continue its current practices.

The decision of NHCSD Board made on March 9, 2015 to continue its current practices of the school choir performing on a Church Tour, singing religious songs at the Winter Music Festival, and performing "In This Very Room" at the final Coffeehouse Concert hereby AFFRIMED.