HOLLADAY -- A popular community production of Handel's "Messiah" has been told there's no room at the inn. Organizers think it's because of protests from a group advocating the separation of church and state, but it may just boil down to a miscommunication.
The Holladay United Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Holladay LDS Stake have put on this performance for 17 years. For the past two years, it has been held at Olympus High School. This year, organizers have been told they cannot use the building on Sunday the 29.
Dr. Darell Richards thinks it's because of two letters the school and city received from a group called "Americans United for Separation of Church and State."
"It's a shame for me to see that it's going to end because of a few, when we've had so many people participate," he told KSL's Doug Wright Show.
But the Granite School District said this seems to just be an oversight or miscommunication. District spokesman Ben Horsley said a 20-year-old policy requires the approval of the Board of Education for use of a school building on a Sunday. Horsley said that approval was not sought for in previous years, but the Board of Education was not aware that the event was taking place.
Horsley said the district was not concerned about the letters from the Americans United group.
He said, "We feel our policies are in compliance with laws regulating these types of situations. Any assertion that this situation has to do with those letters is completely coincidental."
But Holladay City tells KSL Newsradio they were backing off of their support for the production because of the letters. City Manager Randy Fitts said for at least four years the city's arts council provided insurance coverage and money to hang a banner, but this year they were withdrawing that financial support under legal advisement. Fitts said they complied with the group's February requests for documents and were now trying to take a neutral position.
Americans United senior litigation counsel Alex Luchenitser says the group is pleased to see changes happening.
"You had public funding of a religious event and then you had preferential treatment by a school of a religious event," Luchenitser said in a phone interview with KSL Newsradio.
Two letters to Holladay City and the Granite School District described those actions as "constitutional violations."
"The message it sends is that the government is favoring or endorsing or sponsoring religion over a non-religious event," Luchenister said.
Dr. Richards said he's been told no other night was free at Olympus High School, which may mean the production will not go on this year.
"It's just that we have to find a place. We have to find a place that will hold this many people that want to share this experience," he said.