Led by O'Reilly, conservative pundits claimed Washington school “banned” A Christmas Carol

FOX News host Bill O'Reilly and his guest, Anthony R. Picarello Jr., said a public school “banned” a stage production of A Christmas Carol because the school feared it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. In fact, Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, Washington cancelled one performance of the play because the private theater company putting on the play planned to charge admission, a violation of school policy, and because the principal had not approved the event. In a statement, the principal wrote: “The cancellation of this daytime production had nothing to do with religion.”

Picarello, president of the conservative nonprofit law firm The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, appeared on the December 21 edition of The O'Reilly Factor to discuss his firm's awarding of its annual Ebenezer Award to the school. Picarello noted that Becket presents the award to “the person or group responsible for the most ridiculous affront to the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays.”

School principal Mark Robertson explained in his statement that “a subordinate staff member, who did not follow district protocol and without my knowledge or permission had entered into an agreement with a private for profit organization.” He added: “If I were the one contacted by the Attic Theatre management this entire problem could have been avoided and those LW [Lake Washington] students and families who wanted to attend could have done so.” School superintendent Don Saul echoed this explanation.

The King County Journal initially reported the play's cancellation on December 5, writing that Robertson “said he canceled the Dec. 17 matinee by the Attic Theatre cast because students would have been charged to see the performance.” Robertson added: “We don't allow any private organizations to come and sell products in the schools, or we'd have everybody down here.” But the Journal may have fueled the controversy by writing: “While the decision was not driven by the play's Christmas theme, Principal Mark Robertson said the planned performance raised the common questions about school policies and religious activities that come up every holiday season.”

Confusion over the reason for the cancellation was soon resolved. Apparently responding to Robertson's remark in the Journal, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat erroneously reported on December 8 that "[s]tudents were to see a staging of Dickens' story on Dec. 17, but the principal has canceled it, in part because it raised the issue of religion in the public schools." But on December 10, Westneat corrected himself:

Superintendent Don Saul says the reason was the show was booked improperly. The principal's comments about the play raising issues of religion in school were misunderstood. “As far as I can tell, no part of district policy or related, judicially determined guidelines would be violated as the result of a presentation of Dickens' classic as I know it,” he wrote.

In announcing the presentation of its Ebenezer Award, Becket insisted that the school had cancelled the performance over concerns about religion. They falsely claimed that the school's stated explanation was merely a cover, since Lake Washington had previously allowed the private theater company, Attic Theatre, to stage productions at the school: “Although the principal also cited a school policy against the sale of tickets for the show, the performance had been scheduled for months in advance, and the same theater group had previously performed two secular plays at the school without incident.” Becket apparently drew a false conclusion about the “two secular plays at the school” from an ambiguous passage in the Journal's December 5 article:

The Attic Theatre of Kirkland rented the Cadle Theater at Lake Washington High School for 10 after-hours performances of the Charles Dickens' classic. The performance is the group's third, following the “Miracle Worker'' and ”The Diary of Anne Frank.''

But Attic performed its November 2003 production of Anne Frank at Cedar Park Northshore Church in Kenmore, Washington, not at Lake Washington's Cadle Theatre. And while Attic did perform Miracle Worker at the Cadle Theatre, it did so in July 2004, during summer vacation. In contrast, the canceled Christmas Carol performance was a December 17 matinee scheduled during school hours and specifically intended for students, as the Journal reported. Attic performed A Christmas Carol eight times at the school -- for the general public -- in evening performances and weekend matinees between December 11 and December 20.

Regardless, Westneat's erroneous December 8 claim spawned numerous incorrect media reports that the school “banned” the play because of its religious theme. On December 9, Washington Times reporter Jennifer Harper falsely reported that “a Kirkland, Wash., high-school principal nixed a production of ”A Christmas Carol" because of Tiny Tim's prayer, 'God bless us everyone.'" CNN host Anderson Cooper echoed this false report on the December 10 edition of Anderson Cooper 360°, reporting that “a high school in Kirkland, Washington wouldn't allow a production of A Christmas Carol because Tiny Tim says 'God bless us, every one.'” Washington Times columnist Deborah Simmons repeated this falsehood on December 17.

On The O'Reilly Factor, Picarello joined the chorus, claiming that the school had cancelled the performance because "[T]hey said ... this would generate too many difficult issues regarding the role of religion in public schools." O'Reilly had previously covered this “anti-Christmas” story, declaring during his "Talking Points Memo" on December 9: “While anti-Christmas madness is afoot, the latest is a high school in a suburb of Seattle banning the play A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.”