An appeals court has ruled that the performance of a "Christmas Spectacular," which includes a mannequin Nativity scene, at a public high school in Indiana did not violate the U.S. Constitution
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago has ruled that the Performing Arts Department at Concord High School in Elkhart will be able to continue performing a revised version of the annual winter holiday show.
"We are not prepared to say that a nativity scene in a school performance automatically constitutes an Establishment Clause violation," the judges wrote in the 26-page summary, as reported by Goshen News.
"Nevertheless, the nativity story is a core part of Christianity, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. Many nativity scenes therefore run a serious risk of giving a reasonable viewer the impression of religion endorsement," they added.
The performance came under fire in 2015 when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit alleging that the show had violated the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion.
Concord Community Schools offered to make some revisions, including the removal of scriptural references from the Nativity scene and adding songs from other religious holidays such as Hannukah and Kwanzaa.
After a district court ruled that the changes did not go far enough, the music department stripped the New Testament readings and replaced the live actors with mannequins for the Nativity portion of the show.
The FFRF complained that the revised version still violated the constitution, but U.S. District Court Judge Jon DeGuilio disagreed. In his September 2016 ruling, the judge ruled that the "Christmas Spectacular" — as it was performed in 2015 — did not violate the Constitution, but noted that the previous version, including the initial revised version, was in violation of the establishment clause.
The appellate court judges agreed with DeGuilio, noting that the revised version no longer stands out as the show's centerpiece and that "it has become just another visual complement for a single song."
They further stated that the show can be performed in its current state, saying the 2015 version "would not cause a reasonable observer to believe that Concord is signing off on a particular religious message."
"But ultimately, we agree with the district court that in 2015 Concord sincerely and primarily aimed to put on an entertaining and pedagogically useful winter concert. We thus find the 2015 iteration of the Spectacular constitutional no matter which lens we use for evaluation," the judges wrote.
The FFRF described the ruling as a "partial win," but noted that the organization is still considering whether to request the case to be heard before the entire Seventh Circuit.
Concord Community Schools Superintendent John Trout thanked the court for the decision, adding that the school can now begin preparing for this year's performance, where students are allowed display their musical talents.