UPDATE: The AJC has a new story online reporting that a spokeswoman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State said other metro Atlanta school boards can expect to receive letters similar to the one Cherokee got in October demanding it stop holding graduations at First Baptist. “We don’t think you can trade away any student’s constitutional rights just to get a cheaper or bigger space, and they simply must find a secular alternative,” said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The story says DeKalb County has used Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, and Cobb County is planning to hold four graduation ceremonies in May at Turner Chapel AME Church in Marietta.
We are still debating the question of whether public schools should resort to holding their high school graduations in local churches that offer plenty of room for mom and dad, grandpa and the cousins from Ohio. The issue is now on the table in Cherokee, which uses a local church to host its ceremonies.
Earlier this year, we discussed a Connecticut case in which five school districts had planned to hold their 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 graduation plans were challenged in court by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In May, a federal judge ruled that holding high school graduation ceremonies at a church was unconstitutional, and ordered the Enfield school board to find an alternative venue. In a statement at the time, Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said: “We are pleased that the court has found that holding a public high school graduation ceremony in an overtly religious setting is inappropriate when comparable secular facilities are available. The Enfield Schools’ plan to hold the ceremonies in a church created an unnecessary divisive atmosphere for what should be a positive and inclusive event for all students.”
“Hopefully now all Enfield Schools students and their families will feel included and welcome at the ceremonies,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “No student should ever have to feel like a second-class citizen at his or her own graduation.”
Cherokee is now facing the same challenge from one of the same groups.
Facing national opposition and a potential lawsuit, the Cherokee County Board of Education on Thursday night tabled a decision on whether more graduation ceremonies could be held in a church.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington said it received a complaint from a resident over the school system’s use of the Woodstock First Baptist Church sanctuary for graduation ceremonies. The school system has held the events at the mega-church facility since 2005.
Holding the ceremonies in the sanctuary violates the constitutional rights of those who might not be Christian, a group spokesman said.
Board member Stephen Bentley pointed out that three new members will be seated in January on the seven-person board, and that group should render the decision. The motion passed unanimously, but there was spirited discussion among the audience members.
“There are so many people who would not be comfortable standing under a cross to graduate from school,” said Rabbi Jeff Feinstein of Acworth.
He said the board should be cognizant of the minority of students who might be Christian rather recognizing the majority.
“A decision that discriminates against even one person is not the correct decision,” Feinstein said.
Other speakers supported holding the graduations in the church, pointing out the cost is only $2,000 for five graduation ceremonies. Board attorney Thomas Roach provided information that showed the rent for other spaces that can accommodate 5,000 or more people would cost $40,000.
Greg Mikszan from Canton said the ceremony was not about religion or discrimination; it was about reserving the best facility in the county at a reasonable price.
Ernest is ahead of me on this one, sending me this note: We may have blogged on this before but the news story about Cherokee County and the potential lawsuit from a DC based organization brings up this question again. I would say historically that places of worship in our communities have been gathering points for citizens. In some cases, they are the largest indoor venues in the community. I don’t see this as a separation of church and state issue as I see a ‘seller’ providing a ‘buyer’ a venue for a ceremony, at fair market value. As long as no one attempts to ‘convert’ anyone during the graduation ceremony, I say “what’s the harm”? That could happen at any site.
–By Maureen Downey, AJC Get Schooled blog