UPDATE: Ky. parents have ‘hope’ with Charlie Brown bill

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UPDATE 2/13/17 @ 6 p.m.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) -- Linus and his explanation for the true meaning of Christmas could be allowed back into Kentucky schools.

The Kentucky Senate has passed a bill that would allow students to express religious beliefs in public schools.

It comes a little more than a year after several lines were deleted from a performance of a Charlie Brown Christmas at W.R. Castle Elementary in Johnson County.

There had been many honks of support for dozens of protesters in December 2015, upset that after a parent's complaint, school administrators deleted several religious lines from the performance W.R. Castle in Wittensville.

"It's not a bad memory,” said Holly Davis. “It's a time that all of us came together."

Davis's daughter was a part of that play. She had the flu that day and was unable to participate.

In the end, Holly Davis and other audience members recited the Bible passage that had been deleted.

Still, she and other parents like Crystal Saylor are not upset at the principal and superintendent.

"I think they handled it in the right way,” Saylor said. “They done what they had to do, about the only thing they could do."

But now, Linus could be back in.

Kentucky Senators passed a bill allowing students to express their religious beliefs in public schools. It also allows the Bible to be used for the study of religion.

Davis is encouraged.

"It makes me feel like there's hope for the future of our country to be able to express what they believe in," she said.

But her pleasure in the bill doesn't come without reservations. Putting Christ in Christmas could also open the door to religious messages that she doesn't like.

"I don’t think you'll ever be able to make everyone happy all at the same time," Davis said.

The measure passed the Kentucky Senate by a margin of 31-3. But a similar bill passed last year died in the House. This year’s version is longer.

Both the W.R. Castle principal and Johnson County superintendent were out of the office Monday and unable to be interviewed.



UPDATE 2/10/17 @ 3:40 p.m.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Linus could still explain the true meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown under a bill approved by the Kentucky Senate.

Senators voted Friday for the measure that defends the rights of students to express religious beliefs in public schools and allows the Bible to be used for the study of religion. It now moves to the House.

The bill also would permit school boards to allow schools to sponsor "artistic or theatrical programs" that advance the learning of cultural or religious heritage.

That provision is in part a response to a Kentucky school's decision to cut Bible passages referenced in a performance of "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

The bill sets guidelines for schools to allow religious beliefs to be expressed on school grounds. It allows teachers to use the Bible for the study of religion, its history and role in the U.S.



UPDATE 12/18/15
PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Audience members attending the performance of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" at a Johnson County elementary recited a Bible passage that school district officials deleted from the play.

W.R. Castle Elementary School Principal Jeff Cochran some of people attending Thursday's performance recited lines from the play in which the character Linus quotes from the Gospel of Luke.

"We just kind of got together this morning and as were sitting there and it was just all on our hearts that they took out the scriptures and that's the main part you know that's what it's all about," said Holly Davis, one of the parents.
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Earlier this week, Superintendent Tom Salyer said he received a complaint that Christ and Jesus were being used in school plays. That complaint led to the board removing all religious references in schools.

Protesters upset about the decision gathered outside the school board's office to protest the next day

Salyer says he made his decision based upon the advice of his attorney and state officials.



UPDATE 12/16/15 @ 5:25 p.m.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) -- Joey Collins' daughter landed the big role of Snoopy in her school's performance of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," But Collins was stunned to find out school leaders have decided to remove all religious references in the play.

"I got the news she was crying, upset," Collins said. "How grown adults can basically deny and delete Jesus Christ out of their lives, and out of their school."

Collins took his frustration to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has now sent a letter calling on Johnson County school leaders to not give in to the demands of a single complaint.

"The Supreme Court has consistently held that schools can teach about religion, and can use the Bible as a resource in curricular programs," ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp said. "So, when the issue has come up with Christmas programs, {The U.S. Supreme Court has} held that you can sing 'Silent Night' as part of a Christmas program, or include biblical references."

Sharp says his organization has encountered this issue with this very same play several years ago in Arkansas. He believes it's students who suffer the most.

"They're losing all of these great works of classic western culture, of the musical impact and of being able to understand how the bible has influenced Shakespeare and 'Moby Dick' and all of these other things," Sharp said.

The Alliance Defending Freedom says if Johnson County school leaders add the religious references back into the play, the organization will represent the district if anyone would try to sue over the matter.

"We're hoping they'll do the right thing," Sharp said. "We've offered and told them that we would help them if they actually got a lawsuit for including this. We stand by what we say and we want the school to know they are on solid legal basis to include the biblical references."

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky says it's the students who need to be protected in these situations. ACLU-KY Communications Manager Amber Duke released the following statement:

"It appears the Johnson County School district is committed to honoring its constitutional obligation to protecting students' freedom of religion and belief.

"Religious liberty requires protecting BOTH the right of free exercise for individuals of every faith and the right to remain free from government coercion and promotion of religion.

"School involvement in the planning and promotion of a religious play after receiving a complaint from a concerned student or parent would show disregard for every students right to remain free from government imposed religious viewpoints.

"It looks like the Johnson County School District has a good grasp of its constitutional responsibilities."

As of Wednesday afternoon, W.R. Castle Elementary Principal Jeff Cochran says the play will still take place Thursday night without including any religious references.



UPDATE 12/15/15 @ 10:45 p.m.
PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (WSAZ) -- A non-profit legal group says it has sent a letter to Johnson County Schools asking that the district allow biblical references to remain in Christmas plays.

Alliance Defending Freedom says it sent a letter to the Johnson County School District's superintendent and board members Tuesday.

The organization says the letter is on behalf of a parent whose daughter is a cast member in the district's upcoming play, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Superintendent Tom Salyer said the district received a complaint last week about the play having religious references. 

The district then announced it would remove any religious references from all of its Christmas plays.

In the play based off the well-known cartoon film by Charles Schulz, a character reads a passage from the Bible. The movie touches on the over-commercialization of the holiday and serves to remind people of the "true reason for the season." The characters also sing a religious Christmas carol.

Salyer said following the complaint, district officials met with local attorneys and education groups in the state to discuss how to handle the situation. He said ultimately, they determined they need to follow federal law.

Federal law says public school employees cannot endorse religion in their official capacities and during school events.

Salyer gave WSAZ this statement:

"As superintendent of Johnson County Schools, I recognize the significance of Christmas and the traditions and beliefs associated with this holiday. Over the past few days, there have been several rumors indicating that there would be no Christmas plays this year at our elementary schools. I want to clarify that all programs will go on as scheduled. In accordance with federal law, our programs will follow appropriate regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit are official capacities and during school activities. However, our district is fully committed to promote the spirit of giving and concern for our fellow citizens that help define the Christmas holiday. With core values such as service, integrity, leadership, and commitment, our staff and students will continue to proudly represent our district as recently demonstrated by our many student successes."

Dozens of parents protested outside the Board of Education building Monday.

In the letter, Alliance Defending Freedom encourages the district to not "give in to the demands of a single complaint."

The group says it is writing on behalf of parent Joey Collins:
"Through its annual broadcast on network television, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' has reached an iconic status in our nation similar to that associated with many other Christmas traditions. There is no violation of the so-called 'separation of church and state' by allowing children to learn about theater and the origins of Christmas through participating in a stage version of this beloved program that contains the religious elements as the television version."

Alliance Defending Freedom says it is a legal organization that "advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith."

The letter cites court cases that the group claims allows students to "hear and sing religious Christmas carols during school activities such as choir and Christmas programs without offending the Constitution."

The letter also says that past court rulings allow students to learn about the religious origins of Christmas as part of school activities without violating the Constitution.

"We hope that you will resist demands of a lone complainant who seeks to deprive students of the opportunity to participate in this educational (and constitutional) production."

The letter is signed by J. Matthew Sharp, Legal Counsel.

“Schools should not have to think twice about whether they can allow students to perform a classic Christmas production simply because it contains biblical references,” said Sharp in a press release. “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ has become an iconic Christmas story and tradition. Are school officials going to start demanding that other classic productions, such as Shakespearean plays, be censored just because they contain religious references?”

The letter offers the district legal assistance in responding to any potential lawsuits attempting to stop the play from happening.

To see the full version of the letter, click on the link to the right.



ORIGINAL STORY 12/14/15 @ 7:11 p.m.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) -- The age-old debate over religion in schools is taking center stage in eastern Kentucky. Parents are upset after the Johnson County School district announced it would remove any religious references from all of its Christmas plays.

Dozens protested outside the Johnson County Board of Education Monday morning.

"We as parents, a community, we feel that this is wrong," said protester Linda Conley. "This is beyond wrong because Jesus is the reason. Jesus is the reason that we are here and he is the reason for the season."

Superintendent Tom Salyer said the decision comes after the district received a complaint last week about one of the elementary schools' plays: 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'

In the play based off the well-known cartoon film, a character reads a passage from the Bible. The movie touches on the over-commercialization of the holiday and serves to remind people of the "true reason for the season." The characters also sing a religious Christmas carol.

Salyer said following the complaint, district officials met with local attorneys and education groups in the state to discuss how to handle it. He said ultimately, they determined they need to follow federal law.

Salyer gave WSAZ this statement:

"As superintendent of Johnson County Schools, I recognize the significance of Christmas and the traditions and beliefs associated with this holiday. Over the past few days, there have been several rumors indicating that there would be no Christmas plays this year at our elementary schools. I want to clarify that all programs will go on as scheduled. In accordance with federal law, our programs will follow appropriate regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit are official capacities and during school activities. However, our district is fully committed to promote the spirit of giving and concern for our fellow citizens that help define the Christmas holiday. With core values such as service, integrity, leadership, and commitment, our staff and students will continue to proudly represent our district as recently demonstrated by our many student successes."

Salyer said he understands that this is an unpopular decision in the Bible Belt, but that he could not risk a potential lawsuit by ignoring the law.

"We don't want to do anything that would cause harm to our district or our children here in Johnson County Schools," Salyer said.

As a result, the district is removing all religious references from its Christmas plays such as the word "God" and the word "Jesus."

"If they want to take Christ out of the Christmas plays, then they're just a play," said Tom Winston, a protester and local pastor.

About 100 people gathered outside the Johnson County Board of Education around 9 a.m. Monday. A couple dozen stayed through the early afternoon, even in the rain. They sang, chanted, held signs and waved to passing cars. Their waves were returned with hundreds of honks from drivers in support of the protest.

"We're gonna be at Johnson Central (High School), Johnson County Board of Education, as long as this takes," Conley said. "I mean, here we are at Christmas and our school board is doing this. This should send a real message to people."

Some of the parents went to Johnson County Schools themselves and say they never had to deal with controversy like this growing up.

"Our babies are in school and that's the reason that I'm here. I'm staking a stand for Christ," said protester Tammy Scarberry. "People aren't thinking about Christ anymore like they should. Christ is the reason. He's the reason for the season."



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