NEWARK, N.J. — A federal judge declined on May 20 an emergency request to compel a school to let a second-grader sing "Awesome God" at its talent show that night. But the judge said he would consider the case on its merits later.
Frenchtown Elementary School officials claimed that such a performance would be inappropriate at a school event. A lawsuit filed on behalf of Olivia Turton charged the school had violated her constitutional rights.
After hearing arguments in Trenton, U.S. District Judge Stanley R. Chesler said he refused to decide "a complex constitutional issue at the 11th hour," according to the child's lawyer, Demetrios K. Stratis.
"I don't see it as being that complex. But he was just not ready to do it today," the lawyer said.
While the judge rejected the girl's request for a restraining order against the school, he did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, which will go forward, Stratis said.
"I'm hopeful that next year she'll be singing," he said.
A message seeking comment from school board attorney Russell Weiss was not returned.
The ruling came just hours before Olivia had hoped to sing the pop song by the late Rich Mullins at "Frenchtown Idol."
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."
The 8-year-old girl was told May 10 that she could not sing the song. Her mother, Maryann Turton, protested at a school board meeting that night, and was told three days later by Joyce Brennan, the school superintendent and principal, that the religious message made it inappropriate at a school event, according to a lawsuit the child's parents filed the morning of May 20.
The lawsuit charged that the school board in the Hunterdon County town violated Olivia's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process. Also named was board President Catherine Lent and Brennan, head of the single-school, K-8, 130-student district.
The lawsuit, brought with the support of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., argued that the constitutional separation of church and state does not restrict an individual's religious speech.
"Olivia's act, as with all other acts performed at the talent show, is private expression, not the expression of the school, and must be permitted," the fund's staff lawyer, Jeremy D. Tedesco, wrote Lent on May 17.
That view is shared by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which reviewed some of the legal papers in the case.
"Since the school left it open for the students to choose their songs for this after-school event, no reasonable observer would believe that the school officials themselves were endorsing the particular viewpoint of the student," said Ed Barocas, chapter legal director.
Stratis questioned how the school could reject Olivia's choice, but allow another act based on the opening scene of Shakespeare's "Macbeth."
"They've got a scene about boiling animals and witchcraft, but they won't allow a song about God," he said.