Good Grief!: Elementary School Reluctantly Cancels Field Trip To See ‘Merry Christmas Charlie Brown’

When people speak up for church-state separation it can make a big difference.

Like Lucy pulling away her football just before Charlie Brown can kick it, an Arkansas church has canceled a production of “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” that was to be shown to public elementary school students this week.

But unlike Lucy’s mean-spirited prank, the church did the right thing – even though it did so grudgingly.

First and second graders at Terry Elementary School in Little Rock were invited by a local house of worship, Agape Church, to see a stage adaptation of the 1965 cartoon, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” on Dec. 14, said KATV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock.

The play includes a retelling of the Nativity Story by Linus, KATV said, and that had at least one parent upset. So that parent complained to the Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers (ASFT), who informed the school that it was walking into a potential church-state problem.

“We’re not waging a war,” ASFT spokesman LeeWood Thomas told KATV. “We’re basically calling a foul against the separation of church and state.”

Unfortunately, the school didn’t much care about the constitutional issue at hand. Little Rock School District spokeswoman Pamela Smith told KATV that school district attorneys said there was no legal issue with taking public school students to a church to see a play about Christmas. She also noted that the field trip was optional.

That argument didn’t satisfy Thomas.

“[Parents and students] have to choose to either go against their own personal beliefs and go with the in-crowd,” Thomas told KATV, “or step aside and take a stand for their own beliefs, which they'll be ostracized and singled out.”

Despite protests, the school planned to go ahead with the field trip until the church stepped in and reluctantly pulled the plug on the problematic play. In a statement, the Rev. Happy Caldwell, pastor of Agape Church, said “while we regret the loss of students who will not get this particular opportunity right now, we have taken the school matinees off the table, and welcome parents to bring their children to our public performance schedule.”

It would have been fine had Caldwell left it at that, but of course he didn’t. Despite his acknowledgment that “Christmas is a Christian holiday,” he said there is no constitutional issue here.

“Agape Church wishes to salute the courageous stand that the Terry Elementary Principal made in not succumbing to the pressure of one complaint voiced to the Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers and media,” he said. “We agree with the [district’s] position that attending the matinees was not a constitutional issue.” 

Smith told KATV before the show was cancelled that “the teachers wanted to provide a cultural opportunity through a holiday production and are supported by the superintendent and the principal,” but after the show was cancelled she told the TV station that “the school district does not support or promote religious affiliations.”

Somehow her later statement seems disingenuous given the original plan. The school has no business taking children to see a Christmas play at a church, and given the comments made by both the school and the church, they still don’t seem to understand that what they tried to do was wrong.

Public schools cannot be in the business of promoting religion, but that is clearly what the school tried to do. Parents should be the ones to decide what religious education their children receive, and no parent or child should be put in the difficult position of choosing between their beliefs or fitting in with the crowd.

The school did the right thing, but only because the church forced its hand. I fear that little was learned here, except that when people speak up for church-state separation it can make a big difference.