SANTA ANA, Calif. — Their symbol may be a cross, but this month the American Red Cross instructed middle school student Nicholas Boragno that his choir couldn't sing “America the Beautiful” and other songs containing the word “God” at a Red Cross gathering for Sept. 11 volunteers.
Rather than accept those orders, the Orange County High School of the Arts choir canceled its March 10 performance. The incident, parent Cindy Boragno said, left her young son Nicholas “totally stunned and confused.”
After the incident drew a firestorm of negative publicity, including from the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Liberties, national Red Cross officials apologized, but the affair has further tarnished the embattled charity's image.
Last fall, the Red Cross drew intensive criticism for a short-lived plan to redirect to other beneficiaries some of some of the hundreds of millions of dollars raised to help victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Then last month it made headlines when its Salt Lake chapter co-sponsored a program distributing 250,000 condoms at the Olympics. The Red Cross hastily canceled its involvement in the “Safe Games 2002” initiative after pro-family groups and local donors complained that volunteers were indiscriminately handing out condoms to minor children, including kids as young as 12.
Now the Red Cross has a new public relations problem. The Orange County High School of the Arts choir declined to sing rather than change its program for a Red Cross luncheon March 10 for Sept. 11 volunteers. The Red Cross had objected to certain elements of the group's program, which were deemed “too religious.”
The choir had planned to sing a special “Heroes Trilogy,” containing the songs “America the Beautiful,” “Prayer of the Children,” and “God Bless the U.S.A.” The trilogy was arranged specifically as a Sept. 11 tribute.
According to a statement from the school, “The words ‘God’ and ‘prayer’ in the songs ‘America the Beautiful,’ Kurt Bestor's ‘Prayer of the Children,’ Lee Greenwood's ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ and The Fifth Dimension's ‘Declaration’ [containing verbatim text from the Declaration of Independence] … were deemed too religious and political, and therefore in violation of the Red Cross's neutrality policy.”
Cherilyn Bacon, the teacher whose vocal group of seventh-through ninth-graders was initially slated to perform, said that the group's appearance was scheduled for several weeks. Then suddenly on March 5, she was informed by a representative of the Orange County chapter of the Red Cross that several elements of the program were too religious.
Bacon said she spoke with two different officials about the order that the choir must drop songs with religious references. Bacon added that she was also told that the director of the Orange County chapter would call to discuss the matter further, but when she had heard nothing for two days, she decided to go public March 7.
Said Bacon, “People need to know that the Red Cross stands for absurdity.” After Bacon made her objections known, the Orange County Red Cross issued a statement March 8. It said, “The dispute center[ed] only on our sensitivity to religious diversity, and a preference for a music program that would be inclusive and not offend different populations participating in this particular event.” The March 8 statement directed further inquiries to the national office of the Red Cross in Washington.
“We need to remain a neutral organization,” Lynn Howse, public affairs director for the Orange County Red Cross office, told Fox News Channel March 8.
The Red Cross finally backed down the day following the event, which took place as planned March 10 — minus the student choir.
“Principles should remain invio-late,” said a March 11 statement from the Orange County office. “But like many things in life, it is important to use reasonable judgment in applying principles to the everyday circumstances we confront. So, while our principles remain sound, the judgment we made to exclude certain songs from the Sunday program was a mistake. We want to apologize to the community and to any people who were hurt or disappointed by our actions.”
Mitch Hibbs, a national spokesman for the American Red Cross, characterized the incident as a “mis-communication,” explaining that while the Red Cross is committed to a principle of impartiality, in this case an single erring volunteer in the local chapter “took it too far.”
However, Hibbs admitted that that the March 8 statement, while written by the Orange County chapter, had been shown to the national office before it was released. And Bacon stands by her account that more than one local Red Cross official was involved in the decision.
Patrick Scully, communications director for the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, said the Orange County incident was an example of “political correctness run amok.” He said the subsequent apology was triggered by the Catholic League's threat to contact more than a 100 organizations to organize a boycott.
“We are satisfied with the outcome,” Scully said, because the Red Cross “apologized for trying to censor religious [freedom].”
During the dispute, Bacon said she received solid support from parents and school administrators. The school, which initially offered a replacement group to the Red Cross, backed away from that compromise and released a statement fully supporting Bacon.
Cindy Boragno said her son Nicholas asked her why there was a problem with their program if “the president says ‘God Bless America,’ and our money says ‘In God We Trust.’” But, the mother added, Nicholas had learned a valuable lesson about the importance of standing up for one's beliefs.
In the wake of the public relations fiasco, Red Cross spokesman Hibbs wishes he had become involved sooner. Said Hibbs, “Lord help me, if I had heard that volunteer say that [the program needed to be changed], I would have said ‘Hold on!’”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.