EVERETT, Wash. — The Everett school superintendent has been served with papers concerning a federal First Amendment lawsuit filed by a former student who says her rights were violated when a wind ensemble was stopped from playing "Ave Maria" at graduation.
The lawsuit filed by Kathryn Nurre, 18, marks the second time this year the Everett School District has been taken to court over free-speech issues.
"The way these two lawsuits are coming is different from anything that I've experienced," said schools chief Carol Whitehead, who has been superintendent in Everett since 2000 and held similar jobs at other districts previously.
Nurre and other senior members of the Henry M. Jackson High School wind ensemble selected an instrumental version of "Ave Maria" to play at commencement last month. School officials felt it was too religious for the school-sanctioned event. The song derives its name from a Catholic prayer.
"It's a difficult piece to play, and our wind ensemble could play it really well. ... Religion didn't even come into our minds at all," Nurre said.
Nurre, who played alto saxophone in the wind ensemble, said "Ave Maria" had been played at a winter concert without dispute.
But commencement is special, the superintendent said; as the pinnacle of a high school student's education, it's "quasi mandatory."
"It's different from an evening concert where they can choose to attend or not, and not just the students but the audience as well," Whitehead said.
Meanwhile, a trial date has been scheduled for spring in a case involving two Everett High School graduates and former editors of the student newspaper, The Kodak. Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston sued the district, alleging violation of free speech and press freedom after administrators requested prior review of each issue.
Whitehead would not comment on the specifics of either case but said her decisions were based on legal advice.
"I don't make decisions based on personal philosophy. I make decisions based on what I agreed to do here," she said.
Lawyers for Nurre say things went too far last month when the superintendent vetoed the students' selection of German composer Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" — Latin for "Hail Mary" — even though there was no plan to include its liturgical lyrics.
"You've got to be kidding me. Playing an instrumental is endorsing religion? ... People aren't stupid. They know schools aren't endorsing religion," said John Whitehead, president and founder of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute.
The nonprofit conservative legal organization specializes in religious rights cases and is working on Nurre's behalf.
Nurre and her team of lawyers argue there was nothing proselytizing about the instrumental piece.
"I've seen these cases across the country ... where people with any kind of religious ideas are afraid to speak up anymore," John Whitehead said. "I don't think we want to make our schools into little enclaves of fear and chilled speech."
Lawyers specializing in school issues say the superintendent will likely have a good legal argument.
"The school district is responsible for the content on the program. Just as a district could censor a valedictorian speech, it also can censor religious music," said Richard Fossey, who now teaches education law at the University of Houston's school of education.
Both the "Ave Maria" and Kodak cases have drawn national attention, with reaction spilling into the Internet realm.
Bloggers have called Superintendent Whitehead "afraid of her own shadow." Criticism also has come from parents and some staff, though others support her.
"Everyone has a right to their opinion," she said.