Hallelujah, Holladay!: Utah Town Drops Sponsorship Of 'Messiah' Sing-a-long

The city simply cannot use public funds to underwrite religious worship.

Years back, I was one of those high school students who took chorus for the easy "A" -- despite my complete inability to carry a tune.

I'd sit on the back riser chatting with my friends as our choral director passed around the sheet music for classical arias, modern a cappella renditions of old Queen ballads, songs from Annie Get Your Gun and the "Hallelujah Chorus."

I was never as comfortable with Handel's "Messiah," as I was with "Anything You Can Do." Mouthing the words, "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; And He shall reign forever and ever," gave me pause.

Public high schools performing such strongly religiously themed pieces has long been a point of contention in the church-state debate. While some view Handel's piece (and similar compositions) as nothing more than art -- or as Erin Gilmore, pastor of the Holladay (Utah) United Church of Christ put it, "one of the most incredible musical accomplishments"-- others simply see it as a sectarian celebration of Jesus Christ.

Each year, with the first chill of winter, as parents begin stockpiling toys and tinsel and as schools begin preparing for holiday celebrations, the holiday disputes reemerge. This year, the conflict has already begun in the backyard of Pastor Gilmore.

For the past 17 years, the Holladay United Church of Christ and the Mormon Church's Salt Lake Holladay Stake have organized an interfaith performance of Handel's "Messiah," which is open to all members of the community. For 15 of those years, the performance was hosted by the Holladay church.

However, in 2007 and 2008, the "Messiah" chorus chose to use the facilities at Olympus High School in the Granite School District instead. While the school district implements an open-door policy permitting municipal entities to use its facilities for free, it has always required private organizations to pay a fee. Yet for neither "Messiah" performance did the district charge a usage.

As Americans United asserted in its letter urging the City of Holladay and the school district to cease their support of this event, the fee was waived "ostensibly because it treated [the performances] as City-Sponsored events." The letter also notes that "in 2007 the City paid for a banner to advertise the production and for custodial personnel to staff the event; and in 2008, the City provided an insurance certificate and funding for a stage crew."

The city's provision of funds for the event and the school district's preferential of rent-free space for the performances, ran afoul of the First Amendment's church-state separation provisions, AU insisted.

After receiving AU's letter, the city informed us that public funds would not be used to support the event this year, and the school district informed AU that the event would not be held on school property.

Yesterday, the Deseret News published an article announcing that the concert will now be held in the Mormons' Salt Lake Holladay Stake Center. While school spokesman Ben Horsley asserted that the district was not caving in to AU's demands, we are glad that the city and school district will be complying with the Constitution.

"We are pleased to hear they are having the event at a church this year," stated AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. "That should resolve our concerns."

The city simply cannot use public funds to underwrite religious worship.

The division between religiously themed art and religious worship is not always clear, and some courts have said that school concerts or publicly sponsored displays can sometimes include religious elements. Alongside other holiday songs, or in a different context, a rendition of Handel's "Messiah" might have passed constitutional muster.

While many church-state cases hinge on specific circumstances -- and some ­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­are certainly in a shade of gray -- the First Amendment is crystal clear: Neither Congress nor a city council can sponsor or finance religious worship. Holladay's support for the "Messiah" was a constitutional violation, and we are glad to see it rectified.