Girl gets green light to sing religious tune at school talent show

By The Associated Press
12.13.06

All Olivia Turton wanted to do was sing one of her favorite songs at her school talent show.

So when school administrators forbade her from singing "Awesome God," saying the song's lyrics amounted to preaching, Olivia's parents sued, saying their daughter's First Amendment rights were violated.

On Dec. 11, a federal judge in Trenton, N.J., agreed, finding that the song was "private speech" by a student and not a message conveyed by the school.

U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson said the Frenchtown Elementary School talent show was open to the entire Frenchtown community and was not part of the school's curriculum. Participation was not mandatory and no grades were handed out to those who took part.

And the event, hosted by a local pastor, the judge noted, took place after school.

Olivia, now in the fourth grade, plans to sing the song in the next talent show, her attorney, Demetrios K. Stratis, said yesterday.

Her mother, Mary Ann Turton, was thrilled when she learned of the ruling.

"We're really excited, thrilled for the victory," Turton said from her Frenchtown home.

It has been more than a year since Olivia first proposed singing "Awesome God" by the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins at "Frenchtown Idol" — the school's version of Fox's American Idol.

Olivia said she chose the song after she couldn't find a karaoke version of "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid" movie. So she chose "Awesome God" instead, a song on a children's CD that she owned.

"She loves the song," Stratis said. "She chose it because she liked it."

But the school rejected the choice, saying Olivia would be proselytizing. They said she couldn't sing it. One verse of the song has these lyrics: "Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/with wisdom, pow'r and love/Our God is an awesome God."

"To suggest that a little 9-year-old is proselytizing is ludicrous," Stratis said.

In her 26-page ruling, Wolfson wrote that the song could not be considered school-sponsored speech.

"The speech at issue here — a song selected and performed by an individual student — was the private speech of a student and not the message conveyed by the school itself," the judge wrote.

Olivia won the backing of two very different organizations — the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal-advocacy group, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

ADF legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco said the ruling showed that religious speech should not be treated as second-class speech.

"The effect of this court decision is that it permanently prohibits this school from discriminating against religious speech within the context of its school talent shows," Tedesco said.

A message left for Russell Weiss, the attorney representing the school, to inquire as to whether he would appeal the ruling was not returned in time for this article.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU of New Jersey said no reasonable observer would have believed that the school endorsed the religious message behind Olivia's song, and that the school had no right to interfere with her choice.

"The ACLU has a long-standing dedication to defending religious freedom," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "We are proud to help secure this child's right to sing a religious song at the talent show."