Charlie Brown Christmas Controversy
In November 2012, one of the board members of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was approached by the mother of a public elementary school student. Her child had come home with a permission form requesting that she be allowed to attend a performance of “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” at a local evangelical church. This play is based on the cartoon special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that we’ve all grown up with. The mother was dismayed because, while she didn’t want to disappoint her child, she strongly objected to using public school time to have the kids see a play with religious content at a church. At the climax of the story Linus recites a long passage from the Gospel of Luke to explain the “real” meaning of Christmas.
The mother asked what ASF could do. She was adamant about remaining anonymous. She didn’t want her child singled out as “different” and she certainly don’t want to expose the child to potential bullying. Since the child’s teacher actually had a role in the performance, she don’t want to subject that child to possible disfavor from the teacher due to the teacher’s resentment. The mother did not want her child to have religious exposure during public school class time, and she objected to her child being sent to another classroom to spend idle time during the public school day while the rest of her classmates went to church.
We gave a local TV reporter a copy of the letter sent home about the play. Although the mother agreed to speak with a reporter by phone as long as she was not being recorded, she refused to speak on camera even if her identity were obscured. The reporter interviewed ASF spokesperson Anne Orsi on camera. He attempted to get a statement from the church and from the school, but no one from either the church nor the school would speak to him.
Everyone loves Charlie Brown. Every kid enjoys Christmas. This is not a war on Christmas, and it is certainly not a war on Charlie Brown. It is a war on public school children being pressured to go to a play with religious content at a large evangelical church. Taking public school children to a church to see a play with significant religious content doesn’t just blur the line between church and state, it oversteps it entirely. The “opt out” provision is for the children to go to another classroom to idly wait for their classmates to return. If the parents do not compromise their own religious beliefs and allow the school to send their children to a religious program, their children will be singled out as “different.” Because the religious content is sugar-coated with Charlie Brown, even the children want to go to the play. Children tend to like going on field trips no matter what they are because field trips are a welcome break from the classroom routine.
Non-Christian parents have a tough time in a predominately-Christian society when it comes to teaching their children their own religious perspective. That is why separation of church and state is so vitally important. The point of separation of religion and public school is not to hurt Christians, but keep religion a personal matter, not a state-sponsored one.
This event was free to the public. Any and all of these children can go with their parents outside of school hours. This would not be news if the teacher involved with the play had simply distributed the flyer for her class to take home and for the parents to bring their children or not as they wished.
There are children of faiths other than Christianity in our public schools, and children of no faith at all. There are even families of certain Christian denominations that may object to the content of the play for other reasons. Parents are reluctant to speak out because their children want special time away from the classroom, and because they don’t want their children labeled as “different.” A special trip away from the classroom is something no child wants to miss, but when that trip includes significant religious content, parents who are not of that religion find themselves in a difficult position. They can let their children go to the religious event and subject them to indoctrination in someone else’s religion, or they can refuse permission and let their children be singled out and possibly bullied for being “different.”
If the point of the trip was to expose public school children to live theater, there were and are other choices. The Arkansas Rep does a great job, as does the Arkansas Arts Center with its Children’s Theater, and other plays throughout the year are performed by non-religious organizations at non-religious locations students can attend.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers will intervene for these parents to the extent we can so that they and their children can retain their privacy and anonymity.
The local news story was picked up by a CBS station in Atlanta. It was picked up by Todd Starnes of the Fox News Network, and the comments on the blog and on his Facebook post linking to the blog were predictably hateful and intolerant. They exemplify why these parents want to remain anonymous and why they don’t want their children singled out.
They also exemplify how the point of the objection is completely disregarded: no one hates Christmas, and no one hates Charlie Brown. What we object to is having public school time devoted to religious activities.