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National group questions legality of student participation in Freedom Festival event

By Sarah Hunt - | May 4, 2023

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo

Fifth-graders pose for a group picture before the opening night of the 2019 Hope of America Student Showcase held Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at the Marriott Center in Provo.

When Hope of America begins on May 9, a chorus of fifth-grade students will sing a series of songs “commemorating The Declaration of Independence, tributes to our Founding Fathers, songs of appreciation for first responders and the military, and songs reminding us how much we love America,” according to the Freedom Festival. Or not, if the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s argument carries.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, opposes the participation of fifth grade students from 18 Utah public and charter schools in the Hope of America event, part of America’s Freedom Festival in Provo.

The foundation contacted Box Elder, Juab, Provo City, Jordan, Ogden, Nebo, and Alpine, as well as several charter schools. Public information officers Lana Hiskley (Nebo), Caleb Price (Provo City) and David Stephenson (Alpine) all told the Daily Herald they are “consulting with legal counsel to verify district compliance with all legal requirements.”

The foundation claims that the event is overtly religious, and that it is illegal to make public school students participate in a religious event according to Utah Code, which states that “public schools may not sponsor prayer or religious devotionals. School officials and employees may not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious, denominational, sectarian, agnostic, or atheistic belief or viewpoint.”

The group also cited the location for Hope of America, the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Natalie Behring, Special to the Daily Herald

Elementary school children wave American flags and sing a tribute to the military at the Hope of America event Thursday, May 8, 2019, at Marriott Center at BYU.

“The state/church watchdog has been contacted by a concerned school employee in the area, who has reported that the Hope of America event opened last year with an overtly Christian prayer delivered in Jesus’ name,” Samantha F. Lawrence, an Anne Nicol Gaylor legal fellow with the foundation, said in a press release. “Songs that were performed there also have religious overtones, with the ‘Hope of America’ ditty stating, for instance, that America is ‘blessed from heaven above.’ Large television screens were used during the 2022 event to display religious images, such as Christian congregations kneeling in prayer and individuals praying.”

The foundation also claimed that the event has students engage in cultural appropriation by dressing up in costumes to represent different ethnic groups during a musical performance.

Jim Evans, executive director of America’s Freedom Festival, added that the group is “looking at our previous responses in prior years” to see if any updates are necessary.

The group’s complaint comes as the intersection between public school and religion faces legal scrutiny on a national level. In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a high school football coach, allowing him to offer a prayer after a game. The court also ruled that a state could not exclude private religious schools from receiving public funding only because of their religion.

FFRF, though, cites Supreme Court cases from the 1960s through 2000 ruling consistently against faith-based activities in public schools.

“Even though Alpine School District is not an official sponsor of this event, fifth grade students will still perceive that the event, and the prayers that take place during it, are school sponsored. Fifth graders cannot be expected to appreciate the distinction between a government-sponsored and a privately-sponsored event when they are preparing for that event during class time,” reads a letter sent from the group to Shane Farnsworth, ASD superintendent.

The group also alleges that a music teacher at an ASD school called the parents of non-participating students to urge them to take part in Hope of America.


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