Deborah Ross forced a small elementary school to lawyer up to defend its decision to allow children to sing Christmas songs while she was executive director of the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ross, who is now running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, headed up the state’s civil liberties organization for nearly 10 years before launching a political career in the state legislature. Toward the end of her tenure in 2000, the ACLU received an email from a man concerned that his granddaughter’s elementary school had included Christmas songs in its Christmas pageant.
"The beginning of the pageant was fine with songs about Rudolph, Santa, etc., but then the songs turn to a religious slant," says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. "One song in particular, ‘O’Come, O’Come, Emanuel’ was particularly offensive."
"If a Jewish, or Muslim student or parent was present, I [sic] reasonably sure they would have been offended," the letter continued. "I do not understand how public school teacher’s [sic] in this area continue to believe that they can use the school system to proselytize for Christianity."
The man’s email, sent four months following Christmas in April, was forwarded from the ACLU of North Carolina’s general account to an attorney working under Ross with the word "INTERESTING?!?!" in the message.
The ACLU’s North Carolina branch did not take action on all requests it received with Ross at the helm. Exactly a year later, for example, the ACLU chose to do nothing after being alerted by a Vietnam veteran that his right to fly the American flag on his own property was being infringed upon.
However, when the ACLU became aware of the grandfather’s message on Christmas songs, a letter was sent to the principal of Roger Bell Elementary within a week alerting the small Havelock, North Carolina, school that the use of "explicitly denominational songs" violates the Constitution.
"It has been brought to our attention at the ACLU of North Carolina that at the last Christmas pageant held at Roger Bell Elementary, songs about Jesus, the Nativity, and Mary were song [sic] as part of the program," the ACLU wrote in an April 10 letter. "While songs concerning Rudolph, Santa, and similarly nondenominational songs may be constitutionally permissible, songs specifically concerning Jesus and other explicitly denominational songs violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
The ACLU included materials in its letter to Principal Butch Ricks, who is no longer with the school and could not be reached for comment, outlining what it viewed as permissible use of religious practices.
The ACLU received a response from a North Carolina lawyer who used the civil liberties group’s own materials against it.
"The songs to which you refer were those sung at a PTA meeting about Christmas time by students at Roger Bell School," attorney David Henderson wrote. "They were a varied mix of songs, including ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Mary Had a Baby,’ ‘Must be Santa,’ ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’"
"I do not believe this presentation of music at a PTA meeting violates any constitutional provision that I am aware of," Henderson continued. "As a matter of fact, it appears to be absolutely permissible within the language you kindly provided."
Henderson added that "no student was forced to participate in this event" and "it did not offend anyone’s belief."
The ACLU chose to take no further action, stating in a letter to the man who filed the initial complaint that it feared the case would "establish bad law, negatively impacting future litigation."
Henderson said to the Free Beacon the school board was a client of his for decades and that he was paid hourly for the work.
A spokesperson for the Ross campaign did not respond to an email with questions on the case and whether her views have changed on the issue.
This was not the only fight Ross had taken up to limit the presence of religion in local schools.
Ross wrote a letter in 1995 to state legislators urging them to vote down legislation that would allow school boards "to post, in designated classrooms or places of information, religious and philosophic ‘tenets, principles, or teachings’ to educate students about ‘moral, ethical, and virtuous principles.’"
Materials representing principles from religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism could have been posted.
Ross wrote that the law would "strip the state of neutrality towards religion," even as she acknowledged that it did not favor any single religion over another.
"If you’re religious, like flying an American flag, or enjoy singing along to Bing Crosby at Christmastime, Deborah Ross is probably not the candidate for you," said Ian Prior, spokesman for the conservative Senate Leadership Fund. "It’s rare to see someone running for Senate from this far out in left field, but Ross fits the bill as dyed-in-the-wool liberal who wants to impose her radical views on North Carolina families."
Ross’s Democratic primary opponents warned voters that her years at the ACLU would be a vulnerability in the general election.
The Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C., also questioned whether Ross was too progressive to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.