RISING SUN — A national organization is demanding Cecil County Public Schools cancel a school musical set to be performed this weekend because the show’s religious themes violate the constitutional separation of church and state — and has not ruled out a lawsuit if it doesn’t.
“Children of Eden,” which is loosely based on the biblical book of Genesis, is scheduled to run Friday through Sunday at Rising Sun High School. The first act of the play tells the story of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel, while the second act deals with Noah and the flood.
While the musical does take creative liberties with the Bible stories, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that advocates for separation between church and state, argues that’s not enough. “Crucial religious elements” and themes are still present and a central theme of the musical is obedience to Father, the character representing the god of the Old Testament, according to a press release from the organization published Tuesday.
Furthermore, the FFRF argues that the musical violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion — or no religion — over another.
Ryan Jayne, an attorney with the 27,000-member group, wrote in a letter to Superintendent D’Ette Devine that it is “inappropriate and unconstitutional” for a public school to put on such a musical and asked CCPS to cancel “Children of Eden” and take steps to prevent similar things from happening in the future.
“If they do not, we’ll evaluate our options,” Jayne said on Wednesday. “We would consider a lawsuit depending on the circumstances — that would be a last resort.”
Kelly Keeton, a CCPS spokesperson, said Wednesday night that the school system is aware of the FFRF’s complaint, but has no plans to cancel the musical. The selection of school musicals is approved by the administration at the individual schools, she said.
CCPS confirmed this to FFRF in an email from Associate Superintendent for Administration Services Carolyn Teigland on Thursday afternoon. Jayne said the school system’s response was disappointing but “not surprising.”
“We would hope that they are on notice of this potential problem so they can avoid it in the future,” he said.
Brian Curtis, who had two children graduate from RSHS and now lives in Fair Hill, first emailed Devine with his concerns about the musical last week before contacting FFRF on Tuesday. In his email to Devine, Curtis pointed to school regulations that allow religious organizations to exist as long as they’re run by students and not school employees. But since the musical is being directed by school staff, “Children of Eden” violates this rule, he argued.
In her emailed response which Curtis shared with the Whig, Devine contended that the musical is not promoting religion and that “Children of Eden” is “appropriate and legitimate” as part of a study of secular music.
“It is without dispute that the play is based on stories from the Bible,” she wrote. “However, the purpose of the production is not for the advancement or prohibition of religion. The intended purpose that music and drama play in our curriculum is to expose students to a full spectrum of musical and acting tradition. The play, Children of Eden, was selected for its inherent musical and entertainment value and the performance of such is an intrinsic part of a music education.”
Curtis told the Whig on Wednesday that he has no issue with anyone’s religious or non-religious beliefs, but simply believes strongly in the separation of church and state. He doesn’t have any additional plans to protest the play and said he plans to leave the situation in the hands of the FFRF.
Curtis further admitted he hasn’t received a lot of support for his views, but wasn’t really expecting to.
“My position isn’t a popular perspective,” he said. “I know it’s a conservative county.”