The group came under fire this week when it championed concerns voiced by parents of a local elementary school child.
The child's school had organized a field trip to a church to see a play with religious themes, and the parents felt this was a violation of the separation of church and state that put them and their child in an awkward situation.
"Those who stand up for the rights of children to be free from coercion aren't making war either on religion or Christmas," said ASF spokesperson LeeWood Thomas. "Rather, this is a case of a church forming an alliance with local government to violate religious freedom. So we in the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers feel compelled to take a stand on behalf of the parents under the U.S. Constitution."
The ASF is a Little Rock-based secular group which, in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, acts as a watchdog for violations of the separation of church and state.
The controversy began when Terry Elementary School notified parents of a field trip to see "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown," a live theatrical production at a Little Rock evangelical church. The notice said, "This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child's creative imagination in the area of dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending)."
The parents in question, who wish to remain anonymous, felt they were being forced to choose between maintaining their family religious beliefs versus their child being singled out and possibly ostracized or bullied. So they contacted the ASF last week for help.
"Merely allowing a child to opt out of a school-sponsored religious activity during the winter holidays is no solution," said Anne Orsi, a Little Rock attorney and ASF vice president. "Such a situation exposes the children of minority faiths and outlooks to majority pressure and victimization. Thus the religious rights of children are being violated along with their right to privacy."
The Charlie Brown play is scheduled for the weekend of December 14-16, and a charity drive is associated with it.
"There are plenty of non-religious theatrical productions at secular venues in Little Rock," LeeWood Thomas added. "There is no need to mingle religion with public education. Public schools shouldn't take children to churches to see plays with religious content during regular classroom instructional time."
Anne Orsi spoke to a local television reporter on the matter earlier this week, after which the story was picked up by news networks and bloggers across the country. Comments then began appearing online accusing her group of waging war on Christmas and on Charlie Brown.
"This isn't about Charlie Brown or Christmas," Orsi said today. "It's about the separation of church and state. Public schools educate children of every faith tradition. We must be sensitive to that and never allow public schools to promote one brand of religion over any other."
Those familiar with "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the annual animated television special on which the play is based, have noted that the story has significant New Testament content. "Not every religion accepts the New Testament as holy," Thomas said. "Therefore, such a sectarian religious bias in a school-sponsored event excludes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others, including the non-religious."
"This puts non-Christian parents in a quandary," Orsi added. "Their children want to attend a play with beloved characters rather than be warehoused in another classroom. If the parents deny their child permission to attend the play on religious grounds, their child will be singled out as being different from the majority of her or his classmates. And this awkward situation is unacceptable."
The parents who originally raised this issue chose to remain anonymous to protect their children from potential bullying as well as possible backlash from their child's teacher, who has a role in the production. With the matter having gone public, angry and threatening comments seen on blog posts and news sites have reinforced their concerns. Thus the parents, together with the ASF, are asking that all Little Rock public schools respect the law requiring the separation of church and state.
Charlie Brown Christmas Show Causes Church and State Controversy