In a faxed letter sent to Oxford Superintendent Jeff Goodwin April 23, the national nonprofit Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, claimed Oxford High band director Chris Pennington was violating students’ religious freedoms — protected under the First Amendment — and demanded the problem be corrected immediately.
Specifically, the group alleged Pennington was routinely leading his symphonic band class in prayer. The group also alleged Pennington had threatened a failing grade for those symphonic band students who did not show up to perform a concert at a local Baptist church.
Patrick Elliott, attorney for the foundation, said his group learned about the alleged violations from the parents of a student at the school.
The foundation’s faxed letter stated, “It is grossly inappropriate for a public high school band to perform in a religious place of worship. This practice forces students and their parents, who may be of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship.”
U.S. Supreme Court decisions have set precedents prohibiting school-sponsored religious activity based on the First Amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Oxford High Principal Trey Holladay said during a phone interview Monday that after questioning Pennington and several of his students, he determined there was no truth to the group’s claims.
“Pennington has not led any prayers,” Holladay said. “And it is not a mandatory concert. There is no grade deduction for this.”
Holladay added that the band was performing at the church because the Oxford Arts Council invited it. He said the council routinely hosts concerts at local churches because it does not have its own performance building.
Goodwin could not be reached for comment Monday because he was out of town at a conference. Efforts Monday to reach Pennington were unsuccessful.
The mother who contacted the foundation requested anonymity to protect her child from possible retribution. She said Monday that she had personally witnessed the band in prayer.
“They do it often,” she said. “A lot of times, they would do it before football games.”
She said she is nonreligious and does not want the school promoting religion to her children.
“I just don’t push religion on my children,” she said. “They need to make up their own minds.”
Holladay said band members do sometimes pray, but added the prayers are always led by students and not Pennington.
Judge John Carroll, dean of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, said courts have ruled that when students voluntarily decide to pray, it is not a violation of the separation of church and state.
“But school systems have to be careful about fostering any kind of particular religion or prayer,” Carroll said. “The Supreme Court has been much stricter on public schools than on other public institutions in regards to the separation of church and state.”
The student’s mother countered Holladay’s statement that the concert was not mandatory, saying it had been required until the school received the foundation’s letter last week. She said when her child went to the church Saturday to practice for the concert, Pennington told all his students it was no longer mandatory.
“He said a church is just a building, the people make it a house of worship,” she said. “He said students didn’t have to go if they felt uncomfortable.”
Elliott said he did not know if the foundation would take legal action against the high school.
“That’s not something we comment on,” Elliott said. “It would depend on the school’s response.”
Holladay said he did not know when a response would be sent.
This is not the first time the group has made its presence known in Alabama. Earlier this month, the group made headlines after it requested the Birmingham City Council stop praying before its meetings.
According to the foundation’s website, the group was created in 1978 and has filed various lawsuits concerning the separation of church and state issue, including a 1995 case against former Judge Roy Moore, who as a county judge erected a Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom. The website states the plaintiffs won the case, but it was later thrown out on a technicality.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.