by Phillip Dean
Music has always been especially important to Phillip Dean. Gifted as a singer and musician, the high school sophomore leads a Wednesday night youth band at his Rock Hill, South Carolina church. And, though he completes his academic coursework online from home, he played for the last four years in the band of nearby York Preparatory Academy, a public charter school. Like many in the band, he was looking forward last Christmas to playing the holiday concert, which was scheduled to feature, for the first time in memory, a medley of carols with religious themes.
The decision really came out of the blue. We’d been practicing Christmas carols for a month, when one day I walked into class and the band director announced, “We have to pick out new music—the principal says we can’t play religious songs.”
The whole band was upset about that, for two reasons. One, we’d just put in weeks of practice on these songs, and nobody wanted to start over, learning new music from scratch. And, second, the director had let us pick out the songs—so it was our own music choices that were being rejected.
Some of us were curious why our principal would suddenly make such a decision, so we walked to his office and asked him. He seemed surprised to see us—maybe he didn’t think it would be that big a deal to the students. He told us he was responding to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and that they’d threatened to sue the school if we performed any religious music. Apparently, it was easier to change our program than challenge the ACLU.
At home that night, I talked about what had happened with me that it’s important to stand up for what I believe in, no matter what the issue might be. Not that I need a lot of encouragement in that … especially when it comes to my religious beliefs. So an issue like this … well, I was just determined to get to the bottom of it.
"Apparently, it was easier to change our program than to challenge the ACLU."
I went online, researching laws about freedom of speech and religion. But it was my dad who found Alliance Defending Freedom, and sent them an email. He and my mom had told me that if I wanted to try to get the religious songs back on the program, they were behind me 100 percent.
We heard back quickly from an ADF attorney, Rory Gray. He’d done his homework, too, and now quickly sent a letter to the school, explaining that the Constitution protects our right to perform religious music. He sent me a copy of that letter, and suggested that I present it at the upcoming meeting of the school board.
That turned out to be one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done. I typed out what I wanted to say, and practiced reading it. I’d never actually been to a school board meeting before. It turned out there were only a few people there—including my dad, a school friend speaking on the same thing I was, and her mom. After I read my statement and gave the board the letter from ADF, they just said, “Thank you for sharing,” and that was it. They didn’t have a full quorum of the board that night, so they postponed the vote to the next meeting.
In the meantime, I posted what was happening on Facebook, and a neighbor suggested maybe I should call our local paper, too. The reporter I spoke with asked a lot of questions, and began looking into things herself. Other folks were posting things, too, for and against what I and some others were doing. Some said we should just go along with what the principal said and not argue. Others had the same questions I did.
With so many talking about what had happened, I decided to visit the principal again, just to be sure I’d understood everything right the first time. In fact, his story had changed. He hadn’t actually received a letter from the ACLU, he said now. He’d just read a press release they’d issued a few years before.
That was definitely different from what he’d told me before, and I shared that with our attorney and the reporter. They both wondered why he hadn’t just told me the truth the first time. But by then, it was time for the second school board meeting. This time, they would be voting.
There were a few more people at this second meeting—word had gotten around. After I spoke again, briefly, about why I felt this issue was so important, several parents in the room stood to say they agreed with me. The board talked it over, and voted—unanimously—to reinstate the religious music. People gave a little cheer, and we all shook hands. It was pretty exciting.
And I was really thankful to ADF for stepping in and helping us. I don’t think we could have persuaded the board by ourselves.
Next day, I told our band director what had happened, and he announced that our band would be performing the religious medley after all. The rest of the band was pretty happy about that (though, to be honest, a lot of them were just as excited not to have to keep learning new music).
We had a great turnout for the concert. True, nobody really said much about what had happened with the principal—but I knew, and I was kind of proud of myself. Not because of what I had done—but because I had been obedient to God’s call to stand up for Him.