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
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.