Traditionally, the senior members of the woodwind ensemble, the top-performing instrumental group at Henry M. Jackson High School in Snohomish County, Wash., select a piece each year to perform during graduation ceremonies. Having performed Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria at a public concert in 2004, the seniors in the wind ensemble unanimously chose to perform it again at their graduation ceremony on June 17, 2006, because they felt its aesthetic beauty and peacefulness would be appropriate for the tone of the ceremony.
The student musicians proposed to perform Biebl’s piece instrumentally: no lyrics or words would be sung or said, nor did the senior members intend that any lyrics would be printed in ceremony programs or otherwise distributed to members of the audience. However, despite the absence of lyrics, the school superintendent, Carol Whitehead, refused to allow the ensemble to perform Ave Maria at their graduation ceremony because she believed the piece to be religious in nature. …
Believing that school authorities had violated her right of free speech, Kathryn Nurre, a student member of the ensemble, turned to the Rutherford Institute, which filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the school in federal district court in June 2006. A year later, a federal district court ruled that the school’s actions were “reasonable” in trying to avoid offending anyone.
In a 2-1 ruling that was handed down in September 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred. According to the court, school authorities can deny students’ rights to free speech just to keep some of those attending graduation from being offended. (source)
The topic of free speech in schools is contested in the U.S. There’s the famous bong hits 4 Jesus case, for example. Personally, I’m strongly in favor of separation of state and church and of the establishment clause. But I’m equally in favor of the free exercise clause and freedom of expression. There should be some kind of balance and separation shouldn’t automatically trump free exercise. (I say all this as an agnostic).
More about the establishment clause, free speech, freedom of religion and the First Amendment. And if you’re really courageous, there’s a whole blog series on this blog about free speech. Some related topics: school prayer and religious education in public schools.