Is graduation in a church a violation of church/state divide?

Should public school graduations be held in churches?

Should public school graduations be held in churches?

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.

Enfield lost.

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.

According to the AJC:

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

185 comments Add your comment

Old School

December 3rd, 2010
8:41 am

It’s a building. For the life of me, I cannot see how holding a ceremony in any building is the State establishing a religion. There are churches that use school auditoriums for services, concerts, motivational speakers, and the like with no backlash. Most of the time they pay to rent the facility. If folks have a problem with that, why don’t we hear an uproar over football stadiums being used to accommodate huge crowds at funeral/memorial services for local heroes or religious services at interments in public cemeteries?
Are we really that sue-happy? Don’t folks actually READ the Constitution anymore?

Rickster

December 3rd, 2010
8:42 am

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Where does that say that a local board of education or school can’t rent a church for a function? Nowhere in the Constitution do the words “separation of church and state” appear. (Christine O’Donnell was right, by the way.)

Too many people forget the part of the First Amendment that says “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

irritated

December 3rd, 2010
8:50 am

It’s just a building! The church is the people, not the building. The Bible clearly states that, “Wherever two or more are gathered in My Name, I will be in the midst.” So, regardless of where the ceremony is held, if the students want to have church…guess what…it’ll happen, anyway. If were being held in a mosque, there wouldn’t be any kind of interference from activist groups whatsoever. I suggest the students of Cherokee County–if the venue changes–to boycott graduation altogether. I know it would be unfair to the students to not walk for graduation, but it would send a message loud and clear to the school board. Or…they could all just start singing Amazing Grace during the ceremony. It’s high time these “activist groups” stop bullying other people around simply because ONE person complained. My suggestion is that person stay home!

td

December 3rd, 2010
8:52 am

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson

It is almost time for some refreshing to take place ACLU.

Cathy Cox

December 3rd, 2010
8:53 am

It is a Cherokee Board of Education program held at a suitable location that happens to be a church. The building meets the size and financial requirements of this public school board. The Board should not be forced away from a facility that meets both of these requirements because it was a church. PS: if these graduation ceremonies were being held in a mosque or synagogue, would the ACLU be threatening this law suit? PSS: With Bd of Ed budget shortfalls, why should they be forced to incur the legal expenses of this law suit? The students and teachers will pay for it ultimately.

irritated

December 3rd, 2010
8:55 am

And another thing…I graduated from a Cherokee County school in 1994 and we, along with the other schools, had our ceremony (with ZERO complaints) at FBCW…guess the news folks didn’t do its homework.

Dunwoody Mom

December 3rd, 2010
8:56 am

I know here in DeKalb, outside of the stadiums, there are no facilities that are large enough for graduation ceremonies. If places like New Birth or 1st Baptist of Atlanta were not available, and the ceremonies moved to the school gyms, families would be unable to attend graduation. It’s a shame that a few people have to turn this into some type of “crusade”.

Yet another teacher

December 3rd, 2010
8:57 am

To me, the issue isn’t whether it’s legally allowed (though I’m a strong supporter of separating church and state), but whether it’s the RIGHT thing to do. Cherokee County does have a legitimate point about the relative costs of facility rental. On the other hand, I suspect the Cherokee BoE would never consider hosting graduation in a local synagogue or mosque if those were available, because too many participants would be uncomfortable or offended. So, why is it “right” for non-Christians to be forced to attend a secular ceremony in a facility in which they are uncomfortable? High school graduation isn’t an event like, say, the spring musical, which only a fraction of students might attend. It is a huge event in the lives of students and their families, and none should be essentially barred from attending because the district simply “couldn’t” (or didn’t try hard enough) find a neutral facility.

GatorGreg

December 3rd, 2010
8:58 am

OK so the bedwetters get there way. Fine! Now since the Chuch in questions only charges $2000 to cover cleaning expenses, what will the new venue cost? 1, 2, or maybe 3 teachers jobs? The money will have to come from somewhere and I do not want to pay anymore taxes!

So when little Johnny or Susie have a class room of 50 and the teacher does not have time to spend on all the students that really need help, please contact the people that have started this and ask them what they are going to do, or if they are happy now?

I agree that if a School Board can not rent out a Church for activites, then the next time a Church rents out a School building I expect the same uproar!

irritated

December 3rd, 2010
9:01 am

Newsflash! Nobody is “forced” to attend a graduation ceremony and some choose not to walk at all regardless of where it’s held. Also, if a school did decide to have a ceremony in a mosque or synagogue, do you really think they couldn’t have a Christian worship service if they called on the One True God to fill the building with His Presence? Nobody could stop it…nobody.

Easy Fix

December 3rd, 2010
9:02 am

Hold graduation in school gym, one ticket to each paernt and sibling. Let everyone else watch the video. Why spend money renting when budgets are so tight?

Dan DeMan

December 3rd, 2010
9:02 am

Yes it’s just a building, but the citizens of Cherokee have ulterior motives when it comes to waving their x-tianity flags. Both my children graduated in Woodstock Baptist (Six Flags Over Jesus). My objection was the prayer requirement prior to the commencement ceremonies. That is illegal.

Did I Miss Something

December 3rd, 2010
9:03 am

I’m sorry, but where is the lawsuit from the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to get voting booths out of churches? I would hate to have a voter feel like a “second class citizen” by having to step foot in a building where they may happen to see the word “God” (gee, I hope this post isn’t deleted because I used the “G-word”!).

This is what happens when a bunch of tree huggers get hit by falling branches….the loss of common sense and rationality.

Lee

December 3rd, 2010
9:05 am

Oh good grief, it’s just a building – brick, mortar, wood, and glass. You can establish a church anywhere, a shopping center, abandoned warehouse, etc, etc

Perhaps, even a bar and grill… lol

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sbDBXOk7KA

The ACLU is the epitome of the pathological perversion called political correctness.

irritated

December 3rd, 2010
9:06 am

There is no prayer requirement prior to the commencement ceremonies…it’s called a benediction…it doesn’t necessarily involve prayer unless the person giving it chooses to do so. An inspiring poem could be read if chosen.

outspoken1

December 3rd, 2010
9:08 am

hey yet another and dadeidiot…..I hate that people like yet is teaching our children, yet another person in the world unqualified to tie my shoes is instructing our future leaders.
dademan….I wasn’t there but I feel comfortable that NOONE held a gun to your head and forced you to pray.
The prayer was meant for those that were willing without force to participate with other like minded folks.
I hope you and others like you enjoy Hell!

Roy Barnes

December 3rd, 2010
9:09 am

Even I realize that’s a stupid question.

Concerned Mom

December 3rd, 2010
9:10 am

Typical union teacher comment……………..One needs to be strong of one’s Faith, and not weak of the Mind. We have been attending Church facilities for the past 11 years for Scouting purposes, had one Graduation this past summer at FBCW, and are still maintaining our Faith.

DeKalbEd

December 3rd, 2010
9:14 am

What is the world coming to? If the ACLU can cause this much of an uproar over where the children will graduate, then allow the ACLU to donate the dollars necessary to rent the Civic Center or the GA Dome. The use of the church is simply a buyer utilizing a space large enough for all of the childrens family members, both near and far, to witness this huge milestone. Some things are better left alone.

td

December 3rd, 2010
9:14 am

Yet another teacher

December 3rd, 2010
8:57 am

“So, why is it “right” for non-Christians to be forced to attend a secular ceremony in a facility in which they are uncomfortable?”

I feel uncomfortable every time I watch President Obama speak on television. So does that mean he should not be allowed to address the nation on TV with his left wing philosophy (religious views)since it is covered on every station? Or is it that only non-Christians have the right to not feel uncomfortable? Can someone point out to me where in the constitution it states one has the right to not feel uncomfortable?

songbird

December 3rd, 2010
9:18 am

outspoken1 – your comments are near jibberish. It doesn’t surprise me that people in this state don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand how a non Christian would feel about this. Ignorance abounds in Georgia.

And Lee – “its just a building”. So is the cultural center ‘mosque’ at ground zero that so many are up in arms over. I’m sure you don’t want that building built at ground zero do you? Hypocrite!

Former Member of FBCW

December 3rd, 2010
9:22 am

What if the church leadership targeted the school commencement ceremonies even before the building was built as a way to get the “lost” of the community onto the campus without actually attending church? What if it was a targeted strategy? Does that change things? And by the way, it costs the church more than $15,000 to just turn the lights on in that building so the $2,000 number being tossed around is a bit dishonest – if the full costs to the church for hosting these events where detailed, it would be in the neighborhood of other regional facilities. It is totally up to FBCW to charge whatever they want but lets not pretend that the facility is somehow significantly cheaper to host events. The leadership know they have an enormous facility and are drastically undercharging to ensure these events remain on the schedule for a once-a-year tour of the Jesus Dome by the local community. Wake up people and recognize manipulation when you see it.

bob

December 3rd, 2010
9:23 am

Where else in Cherokee County are you going to hold that amount of people? Doesn’t Woodstock High School hold Church services in the school on Sundays?? so technically its the same thing. This is Wrong what is our world coming to? Church should be growing in our schools not being pushed out this breaks my heart!

yanks21

December 3rd, 2010
9:25 am

Would you care if your child graduated high school in a mosque?

Georgia Teacher

December 3rd, 2010
9:25 am

@ Yet Another Teacher

The alternative is the families of the graduates will not be able to attend due to the small size of other local facilities. As it stands, there is no limit to the number of folks who can attend the graduation. If the graduation is held at the local schools, you are talking about limiting the number of guests.

While I am not a big fan of the church, I recognize it is the only building in the county that can handle the crowds. The only other nearby buildings that can handle that size of crowd are in Cobb County and I am pretty sure the Cobb County School District has those locked up for their graduations.

Dr NO

December 3rd, 2010
9:28 am

I dont know much about that but High School graduation ceremonies taking place in the GA DOME etc should be criminal. Yes, for most its the last time they will see a classroom as they will proactively forfeit a college education for an education in the closets penitentiary.

The point being our tax dollars should not be paying for the idiots in Clayton County to have a graduation ceremony in the GA Dome.

Chrome Gouda

December 3rd, 2010
9:32 am

@irritated

You said, “If (it) were being held in a mosque, there wouldn’t be any kind of interference from activist groups whatsoever.”

You can’t honestly believe this. If any public school happened to attampt to hold a graduation exercise in a local mosque, the uproar would be deafening.

Toto: exposing the minstrel

December 3rd, 2010
9:33 am

” assurances from a Christian legal advocacy group — The American Center for Law & Justice — ”
Not an accurate characterization. Jay Sekulow is Jewish. He used to coach my son’s basketball team.
http://www.aclj.org/?r=sekulow2g&s=google&gclid=COu8_Mej0KUCFaJl7AodaiJJmw

Churches have been 501-c3’s since the founding of this country. Providing a place to meet for free saves taxpayers money. The building and land are tax-free! Every election I vote at a church-WHERE IS THE ACLU WHEN YOU NEED THEM?

Frankly, I would be just as happy if public schoolers didn’t use churches for graduation. I home school and I would really prefer that these people not be allowed access to my church. Instead, I propose the use of another 501C3 SECULAR venue, ABORTION CLINICS. It’s time these 501c3 parasites gave back to the community!

American by God's Grace

December 3rd, 2010
9:34 am

The 1st Amendment also says “OR PROHIBIT the practice thereof” So Mr and Mrs ACLU, and Mr Americans United for the Separation of the Constitution from America, why don’t you go find a nice street with lots of cars and go play in the middle.

ACLU = Anti Constitutional Lies n Ultimatums
The first amendment actually protects against what you are doing. Thoma Jefferson et. al., would be extremely angry.

Chrome Gouda

December 3rd, 2010
9:36 am

@Songbird

“And Lee – “its just a building”. So is the cultural center ‘mosque’ at ground zero that so many are up in arms over. I’m sure you don’t want that building built at ground zero do you? Hypocrite!”

Zing! Perfectly stated. The hypocrisy of the Christian elitists is glaring. I am never embarrassed to be a Christian, but I am often embarrassed that I am associated by faith with some of these people.

Chrome Gouda

December 3rd, 2010
9:37 am

American By God’s Grace wrote:

“So Mr and Mrs ACLU, and Mr Americans United for the Separation of the Constitution from America, why don’t you go find a nice street with lots of cars and go play in the middle.”

Can you imagine Jesus saying something like that? How hateful.

Reader

December 3rd, 2010
9:39 am

I was raised in a liberal home, but with strong Christian values. I am also a young adult. But I don’t see anything wrong with graduating in a church. Those other people that complain can just stay at home and receive their diploma in the mail.

Lee

December 3rd, 2010
9:40 am

@songbird, your “Mosque at Ground Zero” example doesn’t hold water. I think they have the right of private property to build their Mosque wherever they want. I also think they should realize the public sentiment against it and rethink their position.

I wonder what the politically correct would say if the KKK wanted to build a shrine across the street from the MLK Center? My guess, the same folks who see nothing wrong about the Ground Zero Mosque would be up in arms against the KKK shrine.

Selective indignation.

home&home

December 3rd, 2010
9:41 am

Looks as if the problem isn’t that it’s held in a church but that the church contains Christian symbols. If I’m FBCW, I’d cover them all up to the point where you’d have no idea it was a church. Then I’d charge the same amount that Cobb Energy, et al would charge. Then I’d donate the “extra” money to a local cause.

American by God's Grace

December 3rd, 2010
9:43 am

@former fbcw member. U seem jaded. Did u go to church there and feel guilty about something so u left to avoid the discomfort. So now the whole motive for building that church W’s for 4-5 graduations a year? Get real. How bout that its packed 3 services every Sunday. Nice conspiracy theory though. Hate to say it but the church is probably better off now that you left.

bob

December 3rd, 2010
9:43 am

Home&home First off the cross WILL NEVER BE COVERED UP FOR ANY REASON!!! SHAME ON YOU!!!!

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Stryder, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: Is graduation in a church a violation of church/state divide? http://bit.ly/fkqrsc [...]

irritated

December 3rd, 2010
9:51 am

@Chrome Gouda: Yes, I’m sure there would be an uproar if it were decided to have the ceremony at a mosque, but naturally, it would fall on deaf ears. However, to me, unless an actual “religious-related” activity in addition to a graduation ceremony, it doesn’t matter where it takes place as long as the whole family can go see their graduate walk across the stage and receive their hard-earned diploma. So, when it comes time for my son to graduate (I still have 5 years), it won’t matter what building we are in…because regardless, Jesus lives in my and my son’s heart and He goes wherever we go. Actually, He’s with everyone waiting for them to call on His Name.

I’d rather see Cherokee County build a civic center so we can have the ceremonies there and not have all this absurd threats of law suits…unfortunately, that wouldn’t resolve this year or even next year’s issue. That way everyone could be happy and nobody, Heaven forbid, have their “feelings” hurt.

Patriot

December 3rd, 2010
9:52 am

“Seperation of church & state” — The never ending fallacy of the left. Can anyone show me where in the U. S. Constitution this is stated? It appear’s that the “anti’s” want to control everything. Now, the govn’mt cannot established a religion, and force everyone to worship it, then this is would be a violation, such as the Islamic faith {which is trying to overtake our nation and force our obedience to their Sharai law}. But, a school holding a graduation inside a building which is used as a place of worship is not a violation of someone’s interpretation of a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.

American by God's Grace

December 3rd, 2010
9:54 am

@chrome Gouda,
I’m not Jesus. No man is. But what I am is sick and tired of being told that “inalienable rights…endowed by my CREATOR” don’t mean anything anymore because some liberal idiot wants to impose his will on me and the majority of the rest of us. One nation under GOD. in GOD we trust. Any of this ring a bell? I doubt very seriously our founding fauthers would have been so big on limiting a government’s power if they wanted it to separate the whole country from its very foundation.

kris

December 3rd, 2010
9:59 am

As a previous person mentioned, I believe ulitmately that it is the Christian symbols present that are the main concern during the graduation ceremonies. If you are a non-Christian, would you want your child’s graduation picture of him receiving his diploma with a cross hanging above or behind him? This would be the “uncomfortable” part of the ceremony. Watching your child graduate in a place where the images that surround you do not support your beliefs or those beliefs presented by the public school system is the root of this argument. I completely understand the desire to use this building because of sheer size and affordability, yet I cannot expect my Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors to support having their child’s graduation surrounded by religious symbols that are not a reflection of their beliefs, nor the beliefs of the public school system. If there were a way to remove the Christian symbols during the ceremony, perhaps there could be some type of compromise, though I am not sure that is entirely possible in a building that is built to display those symbols.

American by God's Grace

December 3rd, 2010
10:00 am

@patriot well said and may I add that the letter written by Jefferson was in no way meant to keep the church out of the state. It was to re emphasize to a church that they could worship freely without a govt telling them how or what to do. Some of you “separation” people need to go back to a library and do some research.

A Teacher

December 3rd, 2010
10:03 am

To concerned mom: There are NO teacher unions in Georgia.

UGA Alumni

December 3rd, 2010
10:10 am

It is about your beliefs. I am strong enough in my beliefs for them not to be threatened by attending a graduation service at any facility that conflicts or has a different take than my beliefs, be it a mosque or a church.

Grow up people…

Michael

December 3rd, 2010
10:13 am

Non-christians are funny. So are Christians who pretend their religion is somehow under attack.

songbird

December 3rd, 2010
10:19 am

The lack of compassion from people calling themselves Christians on this board demonstrates the depth of hypocricy among many Christians. Jesus would be gravely disappointed in many of you.

Hey Teacher

December 3rd, 2010
10:25 am

What is wrong with having graduation in the stadium? Many schools take this route, and yes, it does sometimes rain but having the ceremony at school makes a lot more sense.

aCitizen

December 3rd, 2010
10:29 am

Why have graduation ceremonies? I did not attend mine. Ceremonies accomplish nothing. What matters is good school work and good grades, and attention to learning. Social functions detract from this. Schools should not pay for social functions. I’m also one who objects to sports functions in schools. Modern Americans have their priorities all wrong. I for one, would be very uncomfortable attending a social function of any kind that is not specifically Christian, including readings from the Bible and prayer. All things we do should be to worship God. Yes, I’ve become very shy in this time.

Yankee Prof

December 3rd, 2010
10:35 am

Related to the separation of church and state: My assigned polling place is the Community Hall at the big Baptist church in my little Georgia town, and trust me, I pray every time I submit my vote there. Never seems to work in my favor, though. ;-)

Michael

December 3rd, 2010
10:49 am

My last two polling places have been in churches, too. I profess no belief in “G”od and do not believe religion is being forced on me at the voting booth. Even if someone walked up to me and started talking about Jesus I wouldn’t call that “forced.” And people can walk up to me on the street and do the same and that’s not forced.

As an attorney familiar with the Equal Access to Justice Act, I believe First Amendment cases are just revenue generators. The suits protect us from religious overreaching. However, since the EAJA provides attorney fees for the prevailing party in suits against the government, I can only surmise these suits are filed and fought because you get paid after the show. To the limousine liberals it’s all about the Benjamins.