A watchdog group has asked Shenendehowa schools to stop teaching children “prayerful songs” in its elementary school music classes.
The group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has sent three letters to the district asking it to remove the songs from the curriculum, which it says amount to prayer in schools and violate the First Amendment provisions against government-sanctioned religion.
The songs are “Thank You for the World So Sweet” and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” The first one ends with the line “Thank you God for everything.” The second includes the line “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
The school district’s attorney responded to the foundation saying that the songs were not used as prayers. On Wednesday, Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said the songs don’t violate the law.
“These songs are part of a wide compilation,” he said, adding the district uses songs from various cultures and is likely to add more as the student body becomes more diverse.
“We don’t do religious indoctrination in any of our classes,” Robinson said.
But Freedom From Religion Foundation leaders said legal precedent supports keeping these songs out of public schools.
“The courts are very careful to defend the rights of small children,” said foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
She said one of the prior legal cases came from New York state, where the foundation doesn’t usually do much work.
“We’re used to having to argue in the Bible Belt in the South,” she said.
The foundation got a complaint from a few Shenendehowa parents, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation against their children.
One of the parents found out about the music when the child came home singing one of the songs. The parent contacted the foundation May 22 and the foundation sent the first letter to Robinson on June 13.
Parents have the right to expose their children to religious concepts or not, Gaylor said.
“This is why [the district is] usurping the authority of the parents.”
The district sent back a letter June 26, and the foundation responded July 24, got a response and sent a third letter Monday, Gaylor said.
The foundation is prepared to go to court to defend the rights of parents who don’t want their children to sing Christian devotional songs, she said, but she hopes the issue can be resolved without going to court and ideally before the school year starts in September.
“[The district] can’t win this case,” Gaylor said. “But it should not be necessary for us to go back to court to reaffirm principles that are very, very clear.”