York Prep puts two Christmas songs back in holiday concert

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comDecember 10, 2013 

Two religiously themed selections have been added back to a list of songs to be played at a holiday concert at York Preparatory Academy after a week of controversy.

York Prep managing director Clay Eaton said in a statement Monday night that, “after careful review,” the school’s Governing Board had decided that a “balanced musical program, which included both religious and secular music, best affirmed the ideals of” the Rock Hill public charter school.

Eaton also called the discussion about the decision within the school community “very healthy and constructive.”

The issue was the subject of two meetings of the school’s Governing Board and was discussed on national conservative radio shows and websites.

The band/chorus concert, featuring students from the seventh through 11th grades, is scheduled for Dec. 19 at the school.

The York Prep band has been rehearsing four songs for its Dec. 19 holiday concert, freshman band member Phillip Dean said. They included two medleys – “Christmas Overture” and “The Joy of Christmas,” which both include religiously themed selections, such as “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Eaton told the students earlier this month that those songs were not allowed, Dean said, after the school received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, threatening to sue if such songs were performed.

A day later, Dean said, Eaton told them a press release from the civil liberties organization had prompted his decision.

But the ACLU of South Carolina sent out no such letter or press release, executive director Victoria Middleton said. The organization often gets named as a scapegoat during this type of controversy, she said.

On Nov. 19, Eaton told The Herald there was no letter from the ACLU, but that the group sent out a press release “a year or year and a half ago” stating its position on separation of church and state.

“There are differing opinions about what type of songs would be more or less appropriate for a holiday-themed performance,” Eaton told The Herald. “There’s a lot of gray area.”

Eaton also said he would ask York Prep’s board to discuss the issue when it was to have met that night, but not enough members attended to allow the board to legally discuss or take action on any business.

The Governing Board has not established a policy regarding religiously themed music, Eaton said.

The S.C. School Boards Association recommends that schools set a policy stating that no single religion should be promoted or disparaged by a district, spokeswoman Debbie Elmore said.

Four people did speak against cutting the songs from the performance during the public comment period of the Nov. 19 meeting.

Concerned by the removal of the songs from the concert, Phillip Dean’s family contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based legal organization that describes itself as “advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”

The group sent York Prep officials a letter outlining why the school could keep the songs in the performance, said Rory Gray, an Atlanta attorney for the Alliance. The group offered to represent the school without charge if anyone sued it over the religiously themed music.

The Alliance also issued a press release, which prompted response online by people like Todd Starnes, a commentator on Fox News Radio.

When the York Prep board met again on Saturday, members unanimously agreed to let the students keep the religiously themed songs in the concert.

“After discussions,” the board wrote in a statement, “...we have found our band directors and administrators have allowed songs to be included from this elective class that meet the criteria of being recognized, traditional songs, and there are no legal reasons to not include their selections.”

Jonathan Dean, Phillip Dean’s father, said that throughout the incident, parents were not notified about what was going on with the song selection. They only learned about it through their children or if they attended the board meetings, he said.

Still, he was pleased with the Governing Board’s action.

“The board seemed to be fully in support of giving them back the music,” Dean said.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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