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The North Central Michigan College administration seems to have misinterpreted the First Amendment when it comes to its music choices at the school’s fitness center.
NCMC is a community college located in northern Michigan. Its workout facilities, like that of many public gyms and fitness center around the United States which eschew silence, pipes in music, nonstop, while students and community members (who can use the facilities) run on treadmills, lift weights, pedal bikes, and so forth.
Typically the tunes played at the workout rooms include soft rock, classic rock, and hard rock with little deviation.
So on a quiet Saturday this past fall, a new fitness center employee opted to play songs from a Michigan inspirational music station – Smile FM – much to the pleasant surprise of several regulars who appreciated the break from the status quo and the positive, uplifting songs. Smile FM features award-winning, mainstream artists like Toby Mac, Jeremy Camp, and Casting Crowns.
But faster than one can say Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the station was turned off by a supervisor and replaced with the secular pop tunes genre.
As it turns out, the college has a policy about what music it won’t allow. According to an email from David Hartnett, Vice President of Finance and Facilities at NCMC (to a college senior staffer), there’s a script that employees have to adhere to for any request for religious music.
Harnett wrote: “NCMC is a public institution. It cannot favor religion because of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court interpretations.”
Watchdog Wire contacted Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation organization with the mission of advancing religious liberty, to learn if, indeed, playing tunes from Smile FM at the college’s fitness center is a violation of the “separation of church and state” doctrine.
Attorney Richard Mast responded by offering a long, thoughtful analysis citing Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) a Supreme Court decision that ruled that Christmas displays in the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island didn’t violate the Establishment Clause. (Mast‘s entire response.)
In short, the attorney didn’t agree with what Hartnett decreed.
Liberty Counsel disagrees with this analysis. A community college does not violate the Establishment Clause by playing music that may be Christian or have religious themes, along with a variety of other musical genres. Just as it is permissible for public school students to study and perform sacred music, so long as there is a balanced mix between sacred and secular music, it is permissible for a college fitness class or facility to play a mixture of music from a variety of genres – sacred or secular – as requested by members of the class, or as selected by staff. There is no ‘endorsement’ of religion by the College in so doing.
Mast also added:
The Establishment Clause is not to be read to mean that every government activity must be sanitized of any remotely religious reference, but rather that government must not endorse a specific religion, or endorse religion over non-religion. In order to endorse religion, the activity in question must have been incorporated so as to serve a religious purpose, as opposed to a legitimate governmental interest. No one would argue that the College ‘endorses’ every single secular song from secular music stations, played as background music in the gym. Exposure of patrons to different aspects of our musical heritage, or playing a variety of musical genres as background music in a fitness facility of a college are legitimate goals, and should be continued.
Mast concluded his missive with a generous offer to NCMC: “Liberty Counsel is available to provide pro bono legal defense of the College, should it permit a variety of musical genres, including music that may be religious in nature, to be played in its facilities.”
So going forward – here’s to Newsboys, Gregorian chants, hymns, etc. while huffing and puffing?
Nope. To date, David Hartnett has not contacted the Liberty Counsel although he said he would and he was made aware of the organization’s legal opinion on the matter.
Seems like a teachable moment was squandered by an institution of higher learning.
Photos: Hillsong United from Beliefnet.com
Newsboys from Wikipedia
December 8, 2014 update: After this report was published, David Hartnett, of NCMC, sent an email to Watchdog Wire. Writes Hartnett, “Legal counsel has advised us that the college may play music of a religious nature along with all of the other music played in the exercise rooms as long as music of a religious nature is not played to the exclusion of all other music.”
Tags: David Hartnett, Establishment Clause, first amendment, Fitness Center, Liberty Counsel, North Central Michigan College, Smile FM
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