WOODBINE, Iowa – Christine Skarin and her twins have struck a sour note with a lot of people in their farming community of Woodbine, Iowa, but this small-town dispute isn’t the same old song-and-dance.
"You find out really quick who your fair-weather friends and who your real friends are," Skarin said.
The Skarins took to the courts Monday to fight Woodbine High School’s traditional graduation song, which happens to be a little ditty entitled "The Lord’s Prayer."
There’s something off-key about that for the Skarins, who are atheists in a predominantly Christian town. And her children, Donovan and Ruby, cannot simply tune out during the ceremony – the twins are in the school choir and are required to perform at graduation.
"There is a big difference between a song with a small reference to some religious matter and a prayer," Skarin said.
Essentially, the Skarins feel they’re being forced to pray. And the Iowa Civil Liberties Union backs them up. With help from the ICLU, the Skarins on Monday got a federal judge to issue a restraining order preventing the choir from even practicing the song until the case is settled. With graduation only three weeks away, the judge said the case will soon be heard.
The case might come down to whether or not the song isn’t religious because it’s sung instead of spoken. The ICLU says that doesn’t matter.
"Whether you sing a prayer or say a prayer, it's still a prayer," ICLU Executive Director Ben Stone said.
But school officials and the American Center for Law and Justice, which is not involved in the lawsuit, say U.S. courts do allow religion in school classes when it involves culture.
"The fact that it's a piece of music makes a big difference," the ACLJ’s Francis Manion said. "Cultural things that are religious can be taught in schools as cultural things: music, literature, art."
But Betty Bennett, a parent of a choir member, said the litigious tune the Skarins have struck up isn’t a melody so much as a plain racket.
"It's ticking a lot of people off, frankly," she said.
Steve Brown is an author, radio broadcaster and seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.