Why are school administrators so afraid of this girl’s song?
The elderly man in the grocery must have wondered at the pint-sized show-stopper grabbing at his pants leg, somewhere between the fresh produce and the frozen food aisle. The 3-year-old had come out of nowhere. Now, she gazed up at him with shining eyes and – without a word of introduction – swung into a knockout rendition of her current Sunday school favorite:
"My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty
There’s NOTHING my God cannot do – for YOU!"
What lasting imprint that song and its singer may have made on the heart of the senior shopper goes unrecorded. But 10 years later, Olivia Turton retains a healthy self-confidence ("I still think I’m a pretty good singer"), some particular favorites ("I can sing Taylor Swift, but I can’t sing country country") and fond memories of a time when her taste in music caught a lot of folks off guard.
And turned her life, her community, and a courtroom upside down.
"She’s always been a very outgoing – and outspoken – person," says her mother, Maryanne. From the time she could talk, Olivia loved to entertain, performing impromptu shows for her parents in the living room of their Frenchtown, New Jersey home. More than anything, she liked to sing, especially songs from her Sunday school classes and church activities.
"Teachers used to say, ‘Olivia, the Lord’s going to use that singing someday, and your love for the Lord,’" Maryanne remembers.
Olivia dreamed of singing for crowds bigger than her family. By the time she was 8, her zeal for performing was dove-tailing neatly with a new fad in the popular culture. Her elementary school began sponsoring a "Frenchtown Idol" talent show each fall, and the little girl couldn’t wait to take her place on stage. Though her tastes usually ran to Disney standards, her favorite song at the time was Rich Mullins’ Awesome God.
"I really liked that song," she remembers, "so I wanted to sing it for the show."
At her parents’ suggestion, she took a CD to school so her music teacher would know what she had in mind. The response caught Olivia off-guard.
"She told me the lyrics were too religious," Olivia remembers. "She said, ‘We know you want to sing this song, but we don’t think we can allow it.’"
It was a crushing blow. When Maryanne pulled up in front of the school minutes later, she found her daughter sitting on the curb, crying. Hearing why, she made a beeline for the principal’s office.
"Why can’t she sing this song?" the judge asked.
"I wanted to know how they made their decision," Maryanne says. "We sat and talked for awhile. Finally, I looked her in the eye and said, ‘You know, I’m very passionate about this. And it’s nothing personal against you, or the school, but I know in my heart of hearts that what you’re doing to Olivia, and what you’re doing here in the school system, is wrong. And I have to stand up for what’s right.’"
The principal invited Maryanne to make her case to the school board … which was meeting that very evening. Maryanne spoke for half an hour, handing out packets of information that clarified the protections for religious speech in public schools.
"You could sense an oppressiveness in the air from the school leadership, that they weren’t sure about this," she remembers. "It was like, ‘We’ll get back to you.’"
Only, they didn’t. A few days later, Maryanne visited the principal again.
"We discussed it," she was told, "and we just decided that it’s not going to be allowed."
"It always surprises me when a public school district takes the path of most resistance and restricts religious expression," says Jeremy Tedesco, the Alliance Defense Fund lawyer who returned the Turtons’ call for help. "This whole thing could have been over in a moment – no litigation, no attorneys’ fees – if they’d just let Olivia sing her song."
Instead, the school rejected a formal letter from ADF clarifying that, despite widespread confusions about the so-called "separation of church and state," nothing in the U.S. Constitution prohibits a person from expressing his religious faith on government property – even if that means singing a Christian song in a public school talent show. Tedesco told the Turtons their only remaining option was a lawsuit.
"Actually, a lawsuit was the furthest thing from our minds," Maryanne says. "But when we realized the ramifications, and that this really was a big issue, we talked and prayed about it."
"Initially, I was very unsure about whether to pursue the case," says Bob, Olivia’s father. "For many reasons: the impact on our children, the impact on the family and the community, financial repercussions.
"It took a lot of faith and trust in the Lord – and in the Alliance Defense Fund – to come to that decision. Even though they told us all the way through that there were no guarantees – no one can give you a guarantee which way a judge or a court decision is going to go – they made us feel very confident that the outcome was going to be a positive one.
"After the case moved along," he says, "I thought about other things. It was very important that Olivia know she can let other people know about her beliefs in school. She doesn’t have to sacrifice that right because someone else doesn’t like it."
"If you are a Christian – if you are a person of faith – you do not leave your faith at the school door," Maryanne says. "You are who you are. And you take it through every aspect of your life. And for somebody to shut you down, or tell you that you can’t be the person that you are – that’s not what God created us to be."
"If you are a Christian – if you are a person of faith – you do not leave your faith at the school door."
Olivia thought about all that. "You know," she told her mother, "even if I don’t ever get to sing, my baby sister’s going to go to that school, and she might want to sing someday. And what about the other kids who might want to do something? I don’t think anybody should tell them that they can’t express themselves."
So, ADF filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Turtons – along with a request for a temporary restraining order that would require the school to allow Olivia to sing her song at "Frenchtown Idol."
The case quickly became a national media sensation. The Turtons found themselves being interviewed by everyone from FOX News to The New York Times – and ostracized by their neighbors, many of whom sided with the school board and worried that the city might raise taxes to cover the costs of the lawsuit. Even some family members expressed concern over how the situation might impact Olivia and her older sister, Emma.
"I know Emma was feeling the pressure," Maryanne recalls. "Sometimes, she would think, ‘Well, why can’t she just pick another song, Mom? That would make life easier.’ But those are the times when you can sit with your kids and explain that the easy way is not always the best way, and that you have to stand up for your convictions.
"And it was difficult, as parents, to take that stand in the community. It’s such a small community; you go in the market, and see people who disagree with you. And the school board president lives right behind our house. It was uncomfortable in many ways. But I saw God’s hand in it every step of the way."
Letters to the editor of the local paper paid tribute to the Turtons’ stand. A neighbor wrote a beautiful poem celebrating Olivia’s faith. People phoned from all over the country offering prayers, encouragement – even financial assistance.
"God would always kind of give us a little something to encourage us," Maryanne says.
ADF allied attorney Demetrios Stratis was on hand in Trenton when the request for a temporary restraining order finally came before a judge – on the very day of the talent show. He watched as the judge perused the case briefs, then summoned the school’s attorney to the bench.
"Why can’t she sing this song?" the judge asked.
"She’s attempting to proselytize, your honor. Have you seen these words?" The school attorney pointed out the lyrics to Awesome God. "They talk about the power of God, and thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists."
"What if she wanted to sing Amazing Grace?" the judge asked
"That would be fine, your honor."
"It was uncomfortable … but I saw God’s hand in it every step of the way."
At which point, to the amazement of spectators, the judge began to recite the first verse of Amazing Grace. When he finished, he asked the attorney to confirm that Amazing Grace was not, in the opinion of the school, proselytizing. "How is this song not proselytizing, but Awesome God is?"
Getting no response from the attorney, he said, "This is going to date me a little, but what about Put Your Hand In The Hand?" The judge recited a verse of that Christian song. "Is that one proselytizing?"
"No. But, your honor, both of these talk about God …"
"C’mon!" the judge said, pointing once more at the lyrics of Awesome God. "What’s proselytizing about this?"
The judge then announced that, despite his personal conviction that the school’s case was unsubstantiated, he couldn’t grant the preliminary injunction, since it raised Constitutional issues too complex for a quick resolution. He let the case continue.
Stratis and Jeff Shafer, another ADF lawyer, had to call and tell the Turtons that, on this night, on this stage, the awesomeness of God would go unsung.
Meantime, word continued to spread about the little girl who wasn’t being allowed to sing her song. Offers began coming in: Could Olivia sing at the local preschool? At the nearby Christian music festival, in front of a few thousand people? Would she come to Pennsylvania and record Awesome God for a national radio network?
Not only were the lyrics that her school abhorred being published in major papers coast to coast, but the little girl who wasn’t allowed to sing for a few dozen adults and children was now being heard by tens of thousands all over America.
"We saw the impact that it had across the whole United States, on people who would call up and be encouraged by her story," Maryanne says. "I wanted her to understand that it wasn’t so much about her, but that God had given us the opportunity. God was saying, ‘I’m going to bless you for your faithfulness. I’m going to let you speak for Me. I have good things in store for you.’"
A year and a half later, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Turtons. Olivia was – as any other child in any other American public school should be –free to present Christian themes in a talent show.
"This was the first-ever case with a published decision answering the question of whether religious speech can be excluded from a school talent show," Tedesco says. "We now have a published ruling stating that religious speech must be allowed." That ruling has since enabled ADF to win several other similar free-speech cases for other students around the country.
The victory was a little more hollow in Frenchtown where, sadly, school officials haven’t allowed a talent show since the decision came down. Nevertheless, Olivia’s family has no regrets.
"Going through this situation with ADF really has just brought us great joy," Maryanne says. "I knew that folks there have a heart for the Lord. And when that’s the case, it just makes it a no-brainer. We’re just proud to have had them represent us."
"More people need to take the stance in this country," Bob says. "And I thank God that He gave us the courage to do that. It’s just too easy to push all of your beliefs and your walk with the Lord aside with the busyness of life, and it helps to kind of have it forced up to the front of your life. It’s worth the battle, and worth the fight."
"I think about neighbors who were antagonistic, and now it’s four years later, and there’s a smile on their face toward us," Maryanne says. "And I believe that’s the Lord’s doing. It’s always been my prayer that we could maintain a good Christian witness, so that people would want to know our God. Because that’s what it’s about."
A witness that touched thousands. A girl’s dream come true. A family strengthened in their love for God and each other.
And because they were willing to pay the price for all that … they got it for a song.