A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that it's constitutional for students and staff at an Indiana public high school to produce the institution's traditional "Christmas Spectacular" after the performance was revised to include scenes representing Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the Performing Arts Department at Concord High School in Elkhart will be able to continue performing the winter holiday performance that has been a tradition at the school for about half a century.
Concord's "Christmas Spectacular" came under fire in 2015 when left-leaning civil rights groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the second half of the show featured religious overtones.
The second half included religious songs, a student-performed Nativity scene and recited passages from the New Testament.
After the lawsuit was filed, the school proposed a revised version of the show that removed the scripture readings and added songs to represent other faiths. The revised version also included a mannequin Nativity scene, not a student-enacted Nativity scene.
Despite the changes, lawyers at the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation revised the lawsuit to argue that even the revised 2015 performance was unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio agreed in a final judgement issued last march.
However, the three-judge panel on the Seventh Circuit court panel disagreed and affirmed a 2015 district court's ruling.
"The parties put us in the uncomfortable role of Grinch, examining the details of an impressive high school production. But we accept this position, because we live in a society where all religions are welcome," the court's ruling reads. "The district court found that the Christmas Spectacular program Concord actually presented in 2015 — a program in which cultural, pedagogical, and entertainment value took center stage — did not violate the Establishment Clause."
Concord Community Schools Superintendent John Trout issued a statement Thursday responding to the ruling.
"Concord High School can now begin planning this year's Christmas Spectacular, where hundreds of high school students are able to display their musical talents and families, Concord Schools staff and other community members can enjoy their performances," Trout stated, according to the Goshen News.
Despite the court's ruling, FFRF considered the news a "partial win."
"Although FFRF is disappointed that the court was persuaded by the school's superficial changes to its longstanding Christian performance, the court also affirmed that the plaintiffs are entitled to damages and a declaratory judgment that prior versions of the show violated the Establishment Clause, calling the live Nativity in particular 'problematic,"' a FFRF news release explains.
FFRF lawyer Sam Grover told Goshen News that the organization is considering requesting that the case be heard before the entire Seventh Circuit.
"It seems like at this point the school district community is willing to live with this modified practice which doesn't solve all of the issues in our minds but is certainly a far cry from the live version of this performance with student performers and a school employee reading Bible passages," Grover said.