Church/State Flap Nixes School Chorus Easter Appearance at Italian Basilica

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A Massachusetts public school chorus cancelled a performance planned for Easter Sunday Mass in Italy after an advocacy organization told school officials it would violate the First Amendment.

The chamber chorus at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School is planning to tour Europe in the spring. The highlight of the original schedule was a performance Easter Sunday at St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, Italy, which is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe.

But when posters promoting the event appeared last fall, a former school committee member cried foul.

Leslie Lathrop, who served two terms on the regional school committee before leaving last spring, told the high school principal and superintendent that the performance was inappropriate because it would take place during a religious service.

They told her they’d look into it. But when she didn’t hear back she contacted Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. that tries to keep religion out of government activities.

Americans United sent a letter asking the school district to cancel the performance on the grounds that it would violate the federal constitution’s prohibition against government establishing a religion.

“Members of the student choir will feel pressure from their peers to participate in the religious service, and also the desire to please their choir directors. … That is especially true in this situation, where the opportunity to participate in the Easter Mass is presented as a great honor for particularly gifted choir students,” states the letter, signed by legal director Richard B. Katskee and staff attorney Ian Smith.

“Taking students to a worship service, much less participating in that service as part of a school-sponsored-event, is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause,” the letter continues. “Please put a stop to it.”

(The entire letter is available below this story.)

The superintendent of schools decided around late November or early December to cancel the performance after getting legal advice that suggested the case was murky, said Michael Woodlock, the high school principal.

“We have to be pragmatic about it. It’s one appearance in a 10-day trip, and if it’s going to cost a lot of money in legal fees, then it’s probably appropriate to find another venue,” Woodlock said in an interview with New Boston Post.

(The superintendent, Kristan Rodriguez, left the school district in late December as she had been planning for several months.)

The topic created a buzz at the school at the time but then died down until someone mentioned it this past weekend on an email list serve that reaches many people in Groton, a town of about 10,000 people in northwestern Middlesex County near the New Hampshire border.

That led to a story on WBZ-TV Channel 4 and one on Fox 25 in Boston last night.

In an interview, Lathrop told New Boston Post that she objects not to students performing in a church, but rather as a faculty-led public school group participating in a religious service such as Easter Sunday Mass.

“Visit the church, learn about the church, don’t pray as a group in the church,” Lathrop said. “If they were singing a concert in that church, it would be fine.”

As a person of faith herself — she’s a member of a Reform Judaism synagogue — she emphasized that she is not anti-religion. But she said she’s concerned about the appearance of a public school endorsing a particular religion.

“We have a policy in the school district against advertising, because the students are impressionable and would think that we’re endorsing a product. It’s not all that different,” Lathrop said.

Some parents are upset with the cancellation, calling their children “collateral damage.”

“At issue here is the perceived endorsement by the school of a church function. At stake is our freedom of choice and the educational enrichment of our children,” states a letter to The Lowell Sun, a daily newspaper that covers the region, signed by six parents. “… We write this as parents who welcome exposure to all cultures and all religions in the interest of expanding minds with understanding and tolerance. In today’s world, we could certainly use more, not less, of this.”

The parents note that the students’ scheduled appearance at the Mass in Italy was going to be voluntary.

“Could one argue that the school is promoting or leading the students to attend a Catholic Mass or mandating them to attend? Absolutely not,” they wrote.

Americans United, contacted by New Boston Post, provided a statement Wednesday from one of its lawyers, Smith, through a spokesman. It appears below, with original emphasis:

“It is not the business of a public school to take public-school students to a church to participate in a worship service.  The school planned to take students on an official trip to an active Catholic Church in order to participate in an actual worship service for one of the primary holidays of the Christian religion.  Students would have been exposed to religious iconography, proselytizing, and would have engaged in worship activities all under the umbrella of an official school field trip.  That the trip may have been optional is no defense — the activity would have been blatantly and flagrantly unconstitutional regardless.”

The school chorus performed at the same basilica at Easter Sunday Mass during a trip to Europe in the spring of 2014.

Marcie Desrosiers, whose daughter participated that year and who accompanied the students as a chaperone, said the students sang hymns in Latin and Italian during an approximately 45-minute Mass.

The chorus included both Catholics and non-Catholics. She said the students were not participating in the Mass but rather performing at it.

The beauty, size, and grandeur of St. Anthony’s Basilica made the appearance the highlight of the trip three years ago, she said.

“That’s what just makes it so sad, knowing that the group in 2014 had that experience — a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them,” she told New Boston Post.

She doesn’t agree with the argument that the performance amounts to government endorsing a religious point of view, but she understands why school officials folded when they were challenged.

“If they get a threatening letter like that, that’s what they’re going to do. They don’t have the money to fight it — and the time,” she said.

Bill Ryan, who took over earlier this month as interim superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable district, said the previous superintendent acted after getting advice from the school district’s lawyer that litigation would be costly and the school district might not win.

He called for mutual respect in the discussion, which he said can be a learning experience if handled correctly. 

“I think it’s unfortunate that the whole thing played out the way that it has. I know it’s a more complicated issue than most people know,” Ryan told New Boston Post. “I think it’s important for people to be respectful of each other, no matter what their point of view. Some of these conversations are good to have.”

The high school chamber chorus has 26 members who specialize in a capella pieces. It often competes in regional and national competitions and has won many awards. The chorus also performs at nursing homes and charity events.

The spring 2017 trip to Croatia and Italy is still occurring, school officials say, but just without the performance at Easter Mass.


Editor’s Note: The letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District is embedded below.  This story may be updated as warranted.



Letter to Groton-Dunstable Regional School District — From Americans United for the Separation of Church a… by Matthew McDonald on Scribd