When an Ohio high school caved to pressure from a “separation of church and state” group, parents found a way for the show to go on.

Willoughby South High School’s Concert Choir was all set to perform “I Am Martol,” a show they had been working on for over a year. The original opera was compiled by their choir director Ben Richard, who arranged the performance to challenge his students and stretch their artistic abilities. The production website described the process:

Six choral pieces and one instrumental piece, all written by the contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, were selected. The pieces were put into a particular order based on mood (going from generally dark to light). Then a simple story line about good and evil was written along with some additional music. Using the artistic strengths of the students, he added instrumental solos, a dance solo and the students’ art photography.

Right before the students’ dress rehearsal, the school was notified that the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State had received a complaint about the opera and would file a legal injunction if it were held. Without reading it, they called the production a “religious opera” and claimed that it violated the constitutional ban of government involvement in religion. Afraid of a threatened lawsuit, the superintendent put the production on hold.

A month later, the parents of these students went forward with a private production of I Am Martol. They found a new music director, pianist, and location since the school would now have nothing to do with it. They received no funding or support promoting the show. The original pianist and director, both teachers in the school district, were prohibited from having any involvement. The parents funded the show themselves. Nevertheless, they expected a big turnout from the increased publicity.

Parents and students are disappointed that the school caved so easily to pressure from the special interest group. Christian Barrus, who headed up the effort to stage the production at the new location, spoke for other “outraged supporters” who believe that “though the script may have vague religious references, the opera should be allowed to proceed.”

In the name of “freedom,” Richard and his students have been severely censored.

Light and darkness are classic themes we can trace through most of Western art and literature. Not until the modern rise of “political correctness” did this become a problem. Would the Americans United for Separation of Church and State threaten to stop a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure? Surely its themes of sin and morality, judgment and mercy, would offend someone.

Religious overtones abound in many plays that high schools perform all the time. Think “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” or even “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Background facts make it clear that the school is only acting in fear. The Willoughby district performed “Godspell” a few years before, a production that is much more explicit in its religious themes than “I am Martol.” The principal read the whole libretto early in the process and approved it. But the threat of a legal challenge – and the financial cost that would come with it – changed minds.

In the end, many more people learned about the show as a result of the threat than would have otherwise. Though the school withdrew its support, the show had an even more enthusiastic audience when it is finally performed.

The wait was well worth it. A Cleveland reviewer called it “show of the year.” Community members packed the house the nights of both performances, and their response was overwhelming.

They applauded the blackout. They applauded the closed curtain. They applauded the closing bows. They applauded right through the encore. They applauded on their feet for five straight minutes.

Steve Couch, who covered the story in a local newspaper, said:

I hope someone took a photo of that packed house. The Willoughby Singers should send it with a note of gratitude to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to thank them for the help with marketing.

The choir students learned how it feels to be in the crosshairs of a special interest group determined to restrict free expression. But their parents demonstrated what courage and conviction look like. Instead of backing down in fear as their school district was forced to do, they honored the hard work and creativity of everyone involved in “I Am Martol.” The experience will not go to waste.

School districts may be intimidated by special interest groups, but self-governing, freedom-loving parents show their kids that liberty still reigns.

This article is also published at CNS News.

Photo Credit: Dave Parker via Flickr

About The Author

Mark was a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and served as the national coordinator. He left the organization to work more broadly on expanding the self-governance movement beyond the partisan divide. Mark appears regularly on television in outlets as diverse as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business and the BBC. He’s highly sought after for the tea party perspective from print and electronic media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Examiner, Politico and the The Hill. Mark blogs at MarkMeckler.com, and his opinion editorials regularly run in many of the leading political newspapers both on and offline. Mark has a BA in English from San Diego State University and graduated with honors from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in 1988. He practiced real estate and business law for almost a decade. For the last eleven years of his legal career he specialized in Internet advertising law. When not fighting for the future of our nation, Mark is an avid horseman, and lives in rural northern California with his wife Patty and two children.

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