Should public school events ever be held in churches?

I attended a Catholic school so I never thought twice about school functions in churches. But I have been surprised as a public school parent how many ceremonies occur in local churches. My high school holds its baccalaureate program in a church, although the event is

Should public school functions be held in churches?

Should public school functions be held in churches? (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

non-denominational. But there is still the very real sense that the ceremony is religious with the stained glass windows, the pews and the altar.

As a poster noted, there are also new Georgia charter schools — public schools that operate independently under a performance contract — opening on church grounds in several places.

Here is a good USA Today story exploring this practice and the controversy around it in other parts of the country:

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

The latest school battle over the separation of church and state may not feature prayers at football games, after-school Bible clubs or even a moment of silence.

Actually, there’s no prayer at all.

The newest battleground could be a church building itself — and whether it’s a proper venue for public school graduation ceremonies. In school districts searching for ever-bigger venues at bargain prices, churches are an appealing (and weatherproof) alternative to civic centers, high school gyms and athletic fields.

An advocacy group that monitors church-state disputes says it has intervened in nine proposed church commencements in seven states over the past two years.

In the latest episode, five Connecticut school districts last year said they’d hold their June commencements at an area megachurch. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union complained and all five scuttled their plans, but one, in Enfield, Conn., changed its mind after assurances from a “Christian legal advocacy” group — The American Center for Law & Justice — that it would support the district if the ACLU sued.

The Enfield school board voted 6-3 on April 13 to rent the church for two high school graduations. Now the ACLU says it may sue on behalf of unidentified students, saying the decision is disrespectful to non-Christian families “forced to either attend graduation and be subjected to the religious symbols” or not attend at all, says Sandra Staub, legal director for ACLU of Connecticut.

Could the fate of such endeavors rest on whether the church looks like a church?

Greg Stokes, a pastor who chairs the Enfield school board, says The First Cathedral, a Baptist megachurch in nearby Bloomfield, Conn., is a generic space. “If you … walked into the main auditorium, you would not recognize yourself as being in a church.”

But Staub says the cathedral, with its red-carpeted, stained-glass amphitheater and religious banners, is “clearly a church.”

The district began renting it after the city redid its two high school fields with artificial turf five years ago. Though taxpayers agreed to pay for the new turf, they didn’t buy protective covers — and the manufacturer says the foot traffic of a commencement would void the warranty. The two schools’ gyms are too small — and renting nearby civic centers or arenas would cost as much as $70,000, Stokes says.

At $16,000, the church is a bargain, says Stokes, who notes that it seats more than 3,000 people and features big-screen TVs so “nobody misses their child.”

“It simply came down to a decision based on what we could afford,” he says.

But even the district’s ally in the scrape says it’s not that simple. Peter Wolfgang of the Family Institute of Connecticut says commencement at the church “was a dead issue” before his group persuaded the school board to reconsider with assurances that the American Center for Law & Justice, a Washington, D.C., law firm, would legally represent it. “We showed families and ordinary citizens that people can fight back — that just because you get a threatening letter from the ACLU doesn’t mean you need to panic.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, says the move “violates the idea of neutrality about religion” laid out in the U.S. Constitution and makes non-Christian students feel like second-class citizens.

“I can’t think of a clearer way to promote religion than to have a public ceremony in a private religious space,” he says.

But Wolfgang complains that the ACLU is willing to “upend graduation for an entire community just because a few folks are intolerant of being exposed to anything that may remind them of Christianity.”

Wolfgang, who’s Catholic, adds: “If my high school held its graduation in a Protestant church or a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque, I would be just fine with that, providing that they’re doing it for secular reasons.

96 comments Add your comment

V for Vendetta

April 26th, 2010
11:14 am

Is this an overreaction on the ACLU’s part? Maybe. As an atheist, I can understand the uncomfortableness of having such an important ceremony in a religious building; however, I am also confident enough in what I believe that a few stain glass windows and crosses on the wall will hardly convince me to suddenly fall to my knees in prayer.

I suppose there are a lot of places where there is not a good alternative to the school grounds themselves–but were those other options explored before the decision was made? If they were, and it boils down to the graduation going well or being a mess, then I would have no problem with the school deciding to host it in a local church (indeed, the reasons in this case DO seem valid).

That having been said, it is this type of hypocricy that angers me to no end:

“But Wolfgang complains that the ACLU is willing to ‘upend graduation for an entire community just because a few folks are intolerant of being exposed to anything that may remind them of Christianity.’”

I have a really hard time swallowing the word “intolerant” when it is uttered from the mouths of the faithful. As an atheist living in the South, I can assure Mr. Wolfgang that intolerance is rampant–but the source is almost never secular. Were’t we reading just a few weeks ago about a school willing to upend Prom in order to prevent some gay students from attending? Funny how that intolerance thing works.

Cere

April 26th, 2010
11:21 am

DeKalb is taking this one step further – they will be housing the latest charter, “The Leadership Academy of Lithonia” – not in the vacated property previously used by the “Academy Of Lithonia Charter Schools” which was recently shut down by the state, but in property leased from and with the same address as New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. This – when the system is having enormous disagreement over closing and consolidating regular public elementary schools. Additionally, the church apparently already runs it’s own private school – which provides a dangerous possibility of mixing funds for programs – something the state is very picky about.

Proud Black Man

April 26th, 2010
11:48 am

” “If my high school held its graduation in a Protestant church or a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque, I would be just fine with that,…”

Liar. This member of the white right knows that if a Mosque tried to hold commencement exercises the Christian white right would be in an uproar.

catlady

April 26th, 2010
11:55 am

Has anyone looked at just WHAT demomination’s churches these things are usually held? I have a bet what we would find, at least in the South.

I’m a’gin it!

irisheyes

April 26th, 2010
11:59 am

So, I’m trying to understand this. The ACLU is telling the school district to spend over 4 times the amount to have their commencement at a civic center because people would “feel” uncomfortable walking into a church? Where the only people who are there are people from the school district to hold a commencement?

I mean, seriously, it’s commencement. They’ll play Pomp & Circumstance, listen to some reminisences of high school, get their diplomas, and turn their tassles. Just because it happens in a church doesn’t mean that anyone will be telling them to convert.

In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, “Good grief.”

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Vince

April 26th, 2010
12:05 pm

I agree irisheyes. I have been to synagogues and Hindu temples and never felt as if I were going to be struck by conversion or have some evil befall me.

It’s a building….bricks, wood, nails and mortar.

Vince

April 26th, 2010
12:10 pm

Catlady…

Most of the megachurches are non-denominational. Some of the large ones are Baptist. In either event, I would be comfortable with going in their buildings and I belong to neither of those.

Mattie

April 26th, 2010
12:15 pm

I don’t find using a church/mosque/temple objectionable for a graduation ceremony, if there is no other suitable venue. My son graduated last year in his high school’s football stadium, in a fine drizzle. I would have been much happier inside, but the gym could not hold the expected crowd. A building is just a shelter if the ceremony remains secular.

What I do have an issue with is our high school allowing parents to use the email data base to send out invites for a baccalaureate at the local Baptist church, and then supplying addresses for follow-up formal invitations. It may be non-denominational, but it is clearly Christian based, and, according to the invitation, parents and students are urged to attend this prayer service.

I gave the invite to my senior, and asked if he wanted to go. I figure at his age the decision should be his to make. He said no, although many of his friends will be attending. If he had wanted to go I would have gone on his behalf, but this blurred line between churches and public school has rankled me since we moved to GA.

Ernest

April 26th, 2010
12:19 pm

It’s unfortunate some are making an issue about where some school events are held. In the case of DeKalb County, previous elected officials did not see the wisdom in building a Civic Center to host events such as graduations (along with other revenue generating events). Unless you want to go to Hallford Stadium for an outdoor graduation (which can be nice if the weather permits), we don’t have many choices.

Guess who has the largest indoor venues in DeKalb? Several of the Mega Churches, like New Birth, 1st Baptist, and the former Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. If not these venues, what would residents suggest, going to one of the neighboring counties? Several schools have held graduations at the Georgia Dome so that all guests could be accommodated.

A Different Opinion

April 26th, 2010
12:21 pm

Folks, this is ridiculous……high schools have been having their baccalaureate services in churches as long as we’ve had high schools and now we’ve got some nuts who think our young people will be harmed by this practice. Has anyone polled these young people or asked anyone who has attended a baccalaureate service in the last fifty years if it did them any harm? The last time I checked, attendence at these services was not mandatory……so what’s the problem? This is a choice for the students to decide the location…..it’s their program…..let ‘em decide!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Legend of Len Barker

April 26th, 2010
12:21 pm

It’s funny that the taxpayers agreed to pay for artificial turf for the district’s two football stadiums but didn’t consider anything of real value for the rest of the students or community. They were also willing to pay for artificial turf but some stubborn person refuses to nip the problem in the bud by buying the suggested protective cover.

Would the protective cover cost more than the $16,000 the school is willing to spend on the church? Even if it did, in the long run it would be cheaper.

Our local district had pre-planning one year in the Family Life Center of the local Methodist church. The vast majority of us in the district belong to a church, primarily a Methodist or Baptist one. This likely didn’t insult anyone’s religious leanings but to me it didn’t feel right. The conga line to “Celebrate Good Times” just didn’t fit.

Allen

April 26th, 2010
12:28 pm

My voting place is a church. Standing in a line long enough to read the Bible story posters multiple times has never changed my vote.

Sounder

April 26th, 2010
12:43 pm

There is no way, on God’s green Earth, that there wouldn’t be an upraor of massive proportions from the Christian Right if any high school in this state attempted to hold it’s graduation, baccalaureate, or any other school program in a mosque. If some school system ever proves me wrong, then I will be all for using any of these spaces, no matter what the affliliation or denomination, for school functions, assuming that there is no proselytizing going on. Until then, it shouldn’t happen.

dbow

April 26th, 2010
12:49 pm

The majority always rails at the people who object to this sort of thing because they’re the majority and they can get away with it. As much as I despise Proud Black Man for his race baiting tactics and his lack of a moral compass, I have to agree with him. If the ceromony were held in a mosque, I think most people, me inculded, would have a problem with it. The same goes if it were in a baptist church or whatever. Is there really no neutral site that can be used? By the way, I hate the ACLU, so don’t beat me up too badly.

LSH

April 26th, 2010
12:58 pm

Like much in education and dealing with the public, you are darned if you do and darned if you don’t. Parents can and will complain about something- anything. They will complain about not enough available tickets, poor sound quality, having it during the day, having in the evening, having it outside, having it indoors, having it on school grounds, having it in a private venue, having to pay, how much it costs, how long it took, how short it was, if there were photographers, what kind of pictures, how the MC pronounced the name, if they go from names starting with A-Z or from Z-A. If they get to wear honor cords or not, if sports awards are given or not .
The list of complaints is endless- you simply cannot make everyone happy. Having it in a church or not is just one more thing for someone to complain about.

Shan

April 26th, 2010
1:03 pm

I think the answer is obvious. No public school events should be held in churches, synagogues, mosques or any other sacred or religious buildings or areas.

dbow

April 26th, 2010
1:05 pm

LSH, you’re 100% correct. People are going to find something to complain about regardless. Oh well. As I’ve stated many times previously, the biggest problem with education is all the adults messing things up.

catlady

April 26th, 2010
1:12 pm

Schools should be limited in size to the size of the on school facilities and what they can accomodate for graduation or other large events. If your school auditorium can hold 600, then your graduating class should have less than 200, which would mean a student body of less than 1000. Sounds good to me.

Jennifer

April 26th, 2010
1:12 pm

No school events at churches please. We are dealing with a (1) religious non denominational service a few days before graduation and (2) athletic banquet. We are Jewish. It bothers us.

catlady

April 26th, 2010
1:12 pm

I think smaller schools save money in the end.

RJ

April 26th, 2010
1:15 pm

Here we go again…making something out of nothing! I attended my baccalaureate program 20 years ago in a local church. While in chorus we performed at a Jewish event singing “Shalom” and “Hava Nagila”. We attended service at a Lutheran church and sang excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem. I am so grateful that we were exposed to various religions and were taught to respect everyone’s differences. I went to an extremely diverse school and none of these activities were ever an issue. We are trying so hard to be politically correct that we’ve gone too far and thrown common sense to the wind.

Last year my son’s 5th grade promotional activity was held in a local church because the school gym was too small. It was simple and there was no mention of religion.

I wouldn’t have a problem with my child’s school having a ceremony at a mosque. My kids are firm in their beliefs just as I am.

DeKalb Educated

April 26th, 2010
1:17 pm

We had our baccalaureate program for my three sons at the local Methodist Church – Jew, Hindu, Moslem, Atheist, Protestant and Catholic all showed for the celebration – no religious overtones or prayers. Funny stories, Inspirational stories. Cake and punch were served after the ceremony and people took pictures and hugged. The graduation took place in a mega-church in South DeKalb. It’s funny how CIVIC centers build with civic tax dollars will not give local schools a break on the ceremonies? It would be nice if DeKalb had a public, performance venue. We can’t complain much – DeKalb hasn’t spent much on its athletic stadiums either. Come to think of it – what have they spent money on?

high school teacher

April 26th, 2010
2:06 pm

C’mon, V, you know that seeing those stained glass images of crosses and baby Jesus makes you want to drop everything you have ever believed in and turn to the right path :)

Baccalaureate services are traditionally religious in nature, but they are not required. I have never known a baccalaureate to be held in venues other than a church.

Proud Black Man

April 26th, 2010
2:10 pm

@dbow

“As much as I despise Proud Black Man for his race baiting tactics and his lack of a moral compass, I have to agree with him.”

Check your own moral compass reprobate; I sleep good at night and I sure don’t need validation from a blog site bigot.

oldtimer

April 26th, 2010
2:22 pm

I wish my kids graduation had been held in a nice church intead of Tara Stadium with no “pomp and ceremony”. I was embarressed to have parents and grandparents witness the poor behavior of other “guests”….One lady even talked on her cell all the way through the National Anthem.We heard none of the speeches. A local college graduation was not much better.

the prof

April 26th, 2010
3:17 pm

PBM….”Blog site bigot”….sounds like the pot calling the kettle…errrr…..black?

Georgia Teacher

April 26th, 2010
3:20 pm

All of Cherokee County’s high school graduations (except Polaris ES) are held at the First Baptist Church of Woodstock. Reality: it is the only building in the county that can comfortably seat that many folks.

When I graduated HS, it was an outdoor ceremony at the football field. If there was rain, we had to move into the auditorium and I only had enough tickets to give to my parents… no other relatives would have been able to attend.

A church is just a building. Add in the fact that attending graduation is not a requirement to graduate, either deal with it or don’t attend.

math teacher

April 26th, 2010
3:24 pm

The Baccalaureate services in my county are not run by the schools–they are planned and run by students because it is considered a religious ceremony. Participation and attendance is voluntary.

Since I began teaching, about half of the graduation ceremonies have been in mega-churches (not synagogues or mosques) because of the size of the venue. The seniors would much prefer to have 7-9+ tickets for guests and have the comfort of an air-conditioned church with facilities to accomodate elderly relatives. Non-church settings, including high school stadiums, tend to have much more limited seating (and parking). I personally like having graduation in a church because people tend to be a little calmer and more respectful during the ceremony!

Schools I am familiar with have also used churches for AP testing since the students won’t be disturbed by bells, announcements, etc. and there’s lots of space so classes don’t have to be relocated. The students don’t appear to be unduly influenced by the stained glass, or crosses. They tend to act the same regardless.

dbow

April 26th, 2010
3:37 pm

What a farce! PBM is calling me a bigot. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! You’re not going to get much sypmathy from these people with all the vitriol you spew on a daily basis. Once again I laugh in your face! HAHAHAHAHA!!!

Proud Black Man

April 26th, 2010
3:39 pm

“You’re not going to get much sypmathy from these people with all the vitriol you spew on a daily basis.”

PBM doesn’t look to you people for validation or “sypmathy.”

dbow

April 26th, 2010
3:55 pm

Now you’re referring to yourself in the third person? What a nut job.

V for Vendetta

April 26th, 2010
4:30 pm

high school teacher,

HAHA! I almost converted. Then someone hit me in the head with this big book and I suddenly regained my senses. :-)

Lori

April 26th, 2010
4:31 pm

Who cares what building it’s held in. When there is no Church service going on, it’s just en empty building. Maybe there are some places where a local Church is the only viable and/or affordable venue. People need to get over it.

Warrior Woman

April 26th, 2010
4:35 pm

So, Sounder, V, Proud Black Man – You’re saying because of your bigotry against Christians, school systems should have to spend more for all their ceremonies?

Proud Black Man

April 26th, 2010
4:41 pm

@ Warrior Woman

Do you know what a straw man argument is tea bagger?

JP

April 26th, 2010
4:43 pm

Perhaps the people who object to holding the ceremony in a church/synagogue/mosque could organize the event in what they consider a more appropriate place, pay for the venue, set it up, and make sure everything goes smoothly.

high school teacher

April 26th, 2010
4:44 pm

V, that big book was probably a Bible :)

Steve

April 26th, 2010
4:49 pm

Is it just me, or does it seem like the ACLU is dangerously close to outliving its usefulness? Seems like those goons are always busy either protesting something inconsequential or defending people on the wrong side of a quality of life issue.

is30303

April 26th, 2010
4:51 pm

look things are getting personal with the comments . . . and this is in response to a newspaper article.

Public Government School functions should never be held in churches. It makes people uncomfortable, denominations or type of churches is irrelevant because it can be as much a cultural thing as it is a religious thing.

Don’t miss the simple point: Our Constitution says keep church and government separate. It has nothing to do with morality or religion. Its a matter of law.

It may not bother you but remember indifference only make tyranny easier to impose.

A Different Opinion

April 26th, 2010
4:53 pm

Folks, there’s a bigger controversy going on here besides using churches for high school events. I’m talking about the fact that a few people are bent on changing practices that have been happening in this country ever since our founding…..practices that have made our country great. If we don’t stand up to those (yeah, I’m talking about you, PBM, you’re a racist of the worst sort) that would destroy our heritage, our children and grandchildren will suffer greatly. Just open your eyes and see what’s happening now…..our country is traveling down the road to socialism…..we need to stop it NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

is30303

April 26th, 2010
4:54 pm

to offer something more constructive:

i don’t see how they just can’t hold these functions at one of the fantastic public parks we have around here. take a few chairs and bbq afterward. if it rains, then bring umbrellas and have a water balloon fight. . .

Roan

April 26th, 2010
4:54 pm

Actually the reason baccalaureate is held at a church is because it is a religious ceremony. It’s for the students and parents who want to pray and worship God in their graduation, since it is not accepted in the school. I went to a schools where we prayed each morning, at lunch and at the end of the day…had some bible classes and didn’t have any of the nonsense that is going on in the schools today. Since we are suppose to have freedom of expression I think you should be able to have school functions wherever it is possible to have it…the majority of families in the schools believe and cannot express it at school because of the separation of church and state …there is no separation.

Roan

April 26th, 2010
4:57 pm

As someone stated the baccalaureate is optional…so if you do not believe in a higher being or just don’t feel like prayer, you do not have to attend. Both my children’s were held at a church, as it should that is the reason for it….so we can worship, and you do not have to attend if you choose not to..I personally am glad that we are given that option…why should we not have it because one nut doesn’t want it…guess what..do not attend.

America

April 26th, 2010
5:00 pm

This is amazing to me. It’s a church, not a sweat lodge, a brothel or rave event, it’s a church. At the rate some of our American children are going, I’m sure it’s not a bad idea to hold the commencement there. If you don’t believe in Christ, that’s your business…. not a wise decision, but still your business. It’s a church – a church. Relax… Relate… Release.

Proud Black Man

April 26th, 2010
5:03 pm

@ A Different Opinion

” I’m talking about the fact that a few people are bent on changing practices that have been happening in this country ever since our founding…..practices that have made our country great. If we don’t stand up to those (yeah, I’m talking about you, PBM, you’re a racist of the worst sort) that would destroy our heritage,”

A heritage of Jim Crow, racism and nepotism huh bigot?

CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE

April 26th, 2010
5:06 pm

ALL YOU AGNOSTIC LIBERALs…….Geeeet a LIFE………….get on something else..

CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE

April 26th, 2010
5:08 pm

Ms. DOWNEY…………WHAT A STUPID…..STUPID QUESTION…….DO SOLDIERS PRAY IN FOXholes……..YES…………..THEY ALL DO..

Allen

April 26th, 2010
5:09 pm

Rule #1 of blogs: Do Not Feed The Trolls

CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE

April 26th, 2010
5:10 pm

CONSTITUTION SAYs NOTHING …NOTHING ….NOTHING ABOUT SEPARATION OF CHURCH & STATE…THAT IS LIBERAL HOGWASH……