Cherokee will risk lawsuit and graduate in churches

Should public school graduations be held in churches?

Should public school graduations be held in churches?

In voting Thursday night to continue holding its high school graduations in churches, Cherokee County’s school board could be setting the county taxpayers up for a court fight.

Apparently, the school board thinks the matter is worth the risk, and also believes that free legal services would be forthcoming. (I would want that offer in writing if I were a Cherokee taxpayer.)

You can read part of the AJC story below, but I wanted to share an e-mail from a DeKalb reader who is Jewish.  She looks at this situation with what seems to me a balanced view and one worthy of consideration when debating this issue. Please note that this practice came to the forefront in Cherokee because of a Jewish high school student who did not attend graduation because of discomfort over the use of a church:

My synagogue meets at a church. Every year, some of the largest Jewish High Holiday services are held in churches – many synagogues got their starts in churches.

The cross at the door doesn’t bother me or many others.

In our synagogue, the cross on the stage and other blatant signs are covered with our own banners – the largest is tactfully concealed by a large banner with a Star of David on a telescoping pole.

However, I vividly remember seeing my friend’s graduation photos from Lakeside and being astonished at how blatantly Christian the space seemed – and how prominently the crosses and Jesus banners are displayed throughout the  chapel/auditorium where graduations are held. It’s been three years since I’ve seen those photos and they are still in my mind. I am pretty open-minded, yet I remember thinking that it will really bother me when my own daughter graduates if nothing is done about the very religious displays that, in my opinion, mar the photos of a very special event.

If truly there is no better public, civic auditorium that can accommodate large graduations, and without significantly higher expense, then I can understand the choice of the mega-churches as a venue. However, the school systems MUST invest in school system signage and other décor that will cover the Christian symbols and take the time to make the space neutral for each and every graduation ceremony. The churches should be willing to remove religious proclamation banners from the public spaces while they are rented out to schools. It seems a small investment and compromise to keep graduations accessible and affordable.

Here is the AJC story on the unanimous vote:

The district has used First Baptist Church of Woodstock since 2005, but that venue has been challenged by a Washington-based organization on grounds that it violates the legal boundary between church and state. The group has hinted it may sue Cherokee if ceremonies are not relocated to non-religious sites.

Board members decided to take the legal risk, feeling confident in their opinion that the church venue was the best size and value in the county.

“Personally, I feel it was the right thing to do, to stand up for what we believe in and pursue what’s best for the students,” said Robert Rechsteiner, the newly elected board chairman.

Rechsteiner said a few law firms had contacted the district to offer free legal services, which made board members feel comfortable they would not be using tax dollars to fight a potential lawsuit.

It was clear early in the meeting that several members of the packed crowd supported using the church.

During the Pledge of Allegiance, audience members raised their voice to punctuate the words “under God.” More than a dozen students and parents went before the board in support of the location.

–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

196 comments Add your comment

Ernest

January 20th, 2011
10:43 pm

In DeKalb, megachurches (and most know which ones they are) are the largest indoor venues in the county. If citizens are willing to invest in a multipurpose Civic Center, it could be used. Until then, unless the larger schools want to hold graduations in another county, megachurches provide the best option.

Congratulations to Cherokee County for moving forward. A decision against holding graduations in churches will impact schools around the country. If covering religious symbols is a compromise, I say lets do it.

V for Vendetta

January 20th, 2011
11:00 pm

As one of the most (the most?) outspoken atheists on this blog, I have already said the idea of graduating in churches doesn’t particularly bother me. However . . .

Knowing the good ole boy establishment runs many of our largest counties, it would not surprise me in the least if this were being done out of sheer arrogance and spite. Cherokee is a fairly large school district, but is space at such a premium? I think there are bigger fish to fry, though.

Maureen, did you ever look into the Fields of Faith garbage I posted a while back? If not, here’s the website again: http://www.fieldsoffaith.com/

This seems like an ENORMOUS step over the line–far more so than holding graduation in churches. Several metro schools are listed on the website among others in GA.

just watching

January 20th, 2011
11:18 pm

What happened to holding graduation on the football field with the spectators in the stands and the grads on the field. Heavy tarps were rolled out so the chairs and our high heels did not sink into the ground. It was hot, but it wasn’t terrible….heck…everyone just wore shorts and tees under their robes.

Jennifer

January 20th, 2011
11:38 pm

Here here Dekalb. Covering the religious symbols is the right way to go. We are Jewish too and agree with you completely.

cherokee parent

January 20th, 2011
11:54 pm

Whatever… hope by time my kids get old enough a real civic center will be built. But what bothers me more is the invitation my kid got from First Baptist Church Woodstock in their book bag today to go to services there this weekend after having a “program” by this group from the church at the school. Thought they were going to school to learn not to be saved…alas this is Cherokee County.

Just a Thought

January 21st, 2011
12:07 am

@ V:

I looked a the link and basically this is a group of students exercising their First Amendment right to form a student club/gathering based on their beliefs. Public schools by law, have to treat all student groups the same. If the Atheist student club wanted to hold a rally on the football field, as long as they follow protocol, they should be allowed to do so. Once the school denies access to school facilities to one student group, they must deny access to all student groups. Say no to Christian student groups and you have to also say no to other students groups.

There IS a difference between school endorsed religion and individuals asserting their right to Freedom of Religion. That goes for anybody. Even those that don’t have any. Students participate of their own volition, it is not mandatory, it is not tied to a grade or school related incentives…it is perfectly legal.

Ole Guy

January 21st, 2011
12:17 am

I’ll tell you what, folks…you had best start concentrating on the meat n’ taters of education, not on which building to employ and who it’s going to piss off. Was I you, I’d focus 100% on “edicatin” these kids. Let’s knock it off with the superflous issues and get the damn ball rolling. Given the current state of education, the “appropriate” future graduation sites will be recycling plants, for that will be exactly what these kids’ lives will be destined toward…recycled lives and recycled generations.

Are choices for graduation sites important? Most certainly…but in the grand scheme of things, is it really that important, or simply yet another issue over which to become distracted from the main event…preparing a generation to become responsible adults.

Get with it, people, do you really want your kids to become as easily distracted from the really important issues as you (all) seem to be.

www.honeyfern.org

January 21st, 2011
5:00 am

As the executive director of a non-profit, secular cottage school, I can say that graduating in a church, with all of its attendant symbols, doesn’t bother me in the slightest (and I am also Buddhist). To me, the most important thing is as Ole Guy puts it: focus on what is important – educated kids. The rest is superfluous.

Perturbed

January 21st, 2011
5:19 am

The church doesn’t bother me, it would be what they say. Every event in Gwinnett, including the board meetings, begins with a prayer ending with “in Jesus’ name, Amen”. Uh, “world class schools”? Only about 25% of the world is Christian…THAT bothers me.

Jethro

January 21st, 2011
5:53 am

Simple solution: have those who object find a different venue and pay for the difference on cost. Put up or shut up, folks.

jimmie

January 21st, 2011
6:00 am

I wouldn’t cover who I was for anything. The US is majority christian, we were formed as a christian nation and if churches of any denomination can come to the aid of the community that is awsome and christlike!

SouthCobbDiva

January 21st, 2011
6:04 am

Why is Cherokee County being singled out? Obviously some idiot parent from that county got that special interest group involved. I’m from Cobb, and Cobb has held their graduations in different mega churches for YEARS. It is not the religious aspect, but rather the use of the facility large enough to accommodate enough people along with the lower price tag that the schools seek. I agree with most of you – focus on education first – focus on the venue issue is superfluous. And to those other non-religious venues pricing themselves out: Shame on you – you ought to be setting EXAMPLES for the community by offering similar price breaks for the school systems needing your facilities!

Julie

January 21st, 2011
6:16 am

Way to go Cherokee County School Board. One of my daughter’s graduation ceremony was held at the Baptist Church in Marietta. I remember thinking, what a beautiful setting for such a mile stone in my daughter’s life.

melanie

January 21st, 2011
6:19 am

I say if you don’t like going to church then don’t go!!!! People you need to rise above this….just because they hold graduation @ a church does not mean they are trying to get you to go!!! Good God…oops should not have said God!! Might offend some!! There is nothing wrong with holding them in these big churches…they have the room for everyone to come see their kids, not to go to service & they charge a smaller fee to the schools to use their church. Big the bigger person & get over it!!

Richard

January 21st, 2011
6:27 am

Kudos to the Cherokee Commission for nor kowtowing to this group. If they do end up suing the county, I encourage the county to counter-sue for all legal fees and costs generated by this nuisance.

FarmerRob

January 21st, 2011
6:35 am

This seems like a simple straightforward economic decision. In any economy, and especially in this one, it is foolish to waste resources on more expensive facilities. There is not going to be a church service conducted during the graduation. There is not going to be any proselytizing going on–just graduating.

It is time for all the silly whining to stop. Most likely you will not be stuck by lightning just for walking into a building whose purposes you do not personally approve of or want to participate in.

drew (former teacher)

January 21st, 2011
6:38 am

jimmie says:

“…we were formed as a christian nation…”.

Wrong…better brush up on your history jimmie…or take the blinders off. Most of the founding fathers were Deists, not Christians. Jefferson, in particular, scared some Christians to death with his views. And many of the founding fathers who WERE Christians were acutely aware of the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Do some research.

“There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites” -Thomas Jefferson

As far as Cherokee using a church for graduation, good for them. Hope it works out OK.

Larry Major

January 21st, 2011
6:43 am

Here’s an area where news outlets need some genuine improvement. Lots of folks wrongly believe organizations like AU and the ACLU initiate these legal cases. What these organizations actually do, is provide legal representation to private citizens. Americans United is not threatening to sue; a local private citizen with kids in this school is threatening to sue. To paint this situation correctly, replace “AU” with “my neighbor” in the emotional, inflammatory comments that typically result and notice people are really attacking their fellow citizens.

As to the underlying motive, notice the locals emphasized “under God” instead of “one nation” or “indivisible” during the Pledge. School officials may have legitimate intentions, but supporters are clearly motivated by religion. This helps explain the public’s curious reaction to things like the Barrow County Ten Commandments Case – that never went to trial. Jody Hice convinced the BOC to dump the ACLJ’s free representation and hire nutcase attorney Herb Titus at an exorbitant fee, which Hice promised to raise privately. When Barrow followed Titus’ advice and settled before trial at a staggering financial loss, Hice reneged on his promise to pay the bill. A rational person would expect Barrow taxpayers to run the guy out of town, but instead they formed his base of support for public office.

A similar mindset explains why the same citizens who can afford to dot the landscape with mega-churches have no civic center. It’s their money and their mindset.

Progressive Humanist

January 21st, 2011
6:54 am

Typical for Georgia. I’m not offended by having the ceremony at a church (my school does most years) because it’s cheaper than other commercial venues. But the community members see it as some sort of affirmation of their faith, and religion, ironically, is the central propagator of ignorance in this country and much of the world. It’s just confirmation that the education didn’t stick. Congrats Cherokee.

EnoughAlready

January 21st, 2011
6:54 am

I truly don’t care where graduations are held. However, I don’t think the people of Cherokee or most of the residents in Georgia would be as supportive of holding graduations at a large mosque. They would probably call off graduations in defiance.

Metro Teacher

January 21st, 2011
6:57 am

I just know that if graduation was held at a mosque, there would be an argument. As much as it doesn’t personally bother me, I realize that it can very well offend some people. Why put a citizen in that position? After all my world travels, this is why I appreciate this country: separation of church and state.

guy

January 21st, 2011
7:01 am

Ole Guy is right,but people aren’t interested in hearing the truth. Most people now don’t want to win or lose,they just want to argue.

MRB

January 21st, 2011
7:04 am

The 1st Amendment says NOTHING about “separation of church and state”, it merely states that congress (the state) can not establish nor prohibit religion.

Progressive Humanist

January 21st, 2011
7:05 am

jimmie- Didn’t go to history class before you dropped out of high school? The founding fathers were mostly deists, not Christians. We were not founded on Christian beliefs. The founding fathers were smarter than that. Gotta get that education, my boy…

mrs. math 10

January 21st, 2011
7:11 am

So happy to hear that the Cherokee Board of Education didn’t “bow down” to the extremists in our country who have taken away so many of our freedoms.

82Dawg

January 21st, 2011
7:15 am

@cherokee parent…..sounds like you need to attend that service to me…..with all of that hate about an invitation…..

Reality

January 21st, 2011
7:15 am

If the “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” is sooooo concerned, I suggest they “put their money where their mouth is” and build a venue that would make them happy.

Reality

January 21st, 2011
7:21 am

When Cherokee County told Americans United to…basically….”Go to hell”, is that FORCING Religion on them? LOL! I hope it offends them, too.

Dr NO

January 21st, 2011
7:48 am

“Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization that asked Cherokee to move the ceremony, claims church ceremonies expose students to religious imagery such as prominent crosses, pictures of Jesus and religious literature, and send a message that the district endorses the church and favors Christianity.”

Americans United are so concerned as is the Local Rabbi. Well the AU and Local Rabbi should find a suitable place for graduation and Cherokee County should proceed as they decide.

As for the AU, the local Rabbi and any others…as Reality stated…Go to HELL!

agnes

January 21st, 2011
8:05 am

Ok folks, you think it doesn’t matter if its a Christian church? Would it matter to you if graduation were in a Mosque? If it were in a mosque, I bet NONE of you would accept the argument that it was a good place because its a “large enough venue to hold the crowd”. Y’all would be screaming about religion!

catlady

January 21st, 2011
8:06 am

I am against this. Hopefully the citizens of Cherokee will demand that the board members pay, OUT OF THEIR OWN PERSONAL POCKETS, for any legal defense that is needed. Let them put their own money where their “beliefs” are.

pt

January 21st, 2011
8:08 am

In this precarious economy why waste ANY taxpayer dollars paying for any outside venue? When we were growing up, the graduation venue was always in the high school gymnasium or the football stadium, depending on the size of the graduation and weather. Government loves to spend other people’s money, don’t they?

Marie

January 21st, 2011
8:12 am

Graduation ceremonies are “extra cirricular” activities that schools sponsor and students and their families DO NOT have to participate. I had a very strict religious upbringing and as such there were activities such as the prom, marching band, cheerleading, etc., that were forbidden by my religious beliefs. However, unlike non-Christians my parents, siblings, and I did not whine and complain that the school should alter or stop these “extra cirricular” activities from taking place because they did not conform to my religious beliefs.

One of my brother’s classmates did not participate in his graduation ceremony because he was a Seven Day Adventist and the ceremony was being held on a Saturday evening. Again he (nor his family) did not stage a protest or file a lawsuit demanding that the school host the event on another day so he could participate.

If there is a student and his/her family within the Cherokee County school system that has a viewpoint that attending a Christian church for a graduation ceremony is offensive and/or violates their own religious views THEN DON”T GO. The school system is not denying ANY student their HS diploma (if they have earned it) by not participating in the graduation ceremy. And the participation in extra cirricular activities sponsored by any school is an INDIVIDUAL CHOICE.

mike

January 21st, 2011
8:14 am

I always love the term “founding fathers”. Do you mean those folks who tried to exterminate the Native Americans or the ones who were slaves owners? I really liked the comment said by one lady a local news show interviewed and she complained about the outsiders coming into their community. Same remark said by people and their state legislators during the 60’s. Prepare to open up your pocketbooks people.

Intersting

January 21st, 2011
8:15 am

Christ lives in us not in a building. You don’t go to a graduation to worship God; you go to get your diploma. It cost an arm and a leg to rent venues; if the church building is cheaper and has enough room, go for it. If anyone is offended by stepping foot in a church “building”, then they lack confidence in there own beliefs.

BJ

January 21st, 2011
8:17 am

As a strong supporter of separation of church & state, I’m against this overall. But many of us in metro ATL vote in churches so we are already using religious venues for government-sponsored activities. As long as the church is used only as a location for an event and is not participating as a sponsor and/or graduation program participant then I am less concerned about the buildings use.

Just Get a Superior Education

January 21st, 2011
8:18 am

If more parents and students concentrated on education, then maybe the graduates would be smart enough to make enough money to give to the county to build a new, expensive venue. That wolf be a positive outcome from these debates. Let’s focus on real, meaningful priorities instead of divert our attention onto issues that are meaningless.

Afterall, while we debate this non-issue other countries are busy educating their kids to beat our kids.

Road Scholar

January 21st, 2011
8:18 am

What a better place for the parents to pray that their young adult keeps their HOPE scholarship, if they had received a quality education in high school! Otherwise, who cares!

Bonannie

January 21st, 2011
8:25 am

Churches are practical and economical. That should be the reality and the end of a non-story. People shouldn’t take things so seriously and make personal issues out of public realities. Most people and faiths agree with the Golden Rule: so let’s practice it, stop seeing slights where there aren’t any and just get along!

Rose

January 21st, 2011
8:26 am

Yes!! I was so elated when I heard Cherokee County Commissioners did not give in!! Everybody wants to sue. And that group that planned to sue, probably does not live in that county or have anyone who does. I commend you (CCC) for standing your ground. And another thing, don’t cover the Christian symbols. Thanks.

Jack Bruce

January 21st, 2011
8:28 am

Your online headline states that the church is “hosting” the graduation. Isn’t there a difference between hosting and renting or allowing a group to “use” the facilities? I believe the headline misrepresent the facts by inferring a larger role of church in the graduation.

Just Wondering

January 21st, 2011
8:30 am

If this is such a big issue, then the small group of parents who take issue should pay for the entire ceremony location at a location that is appeasing to them. Oh, I thought so…..

1911A1

January 21st, 2011
8:36 am

Just who is this group, “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” anyway? Who heads it up? Who funds it? What is their REAL agenda? A real journalist would find out and report it; I’ve heard nothing so far. Activist groups seem to get a free pass when it comes to legitimacy.

Philosopher

January 21st, 2011
8:37 am

I agree, Ole Guy, we should focus on educating the kids…but in Cherokee County, the Baptist religion IS the biggest, most pervasive force in this county. I am a Christian, but not Baptist, and I have spent as many hours undoing my kids’ public school Baptist education as I have helping them with their academic studies. The stuff the kids have come home with -stuff heard from fellow students and teachers alike-from politics to books- has been appalling. When I went to talk to one principal about the school’s failure to have fire drills, I was rewarded with an invitation to visit his Baptist(naturally)church. And if we want to insist that the kids aren’t affected by the fact that they are graduating in a huge church, ask them why they call WBC “Six Flags over Jesus”!

FCS Teacher

January 21st, 2011
8:37 am

If this were a mega-mosque, would these parents support the decision with the same fervor?

Rabbi Feinstein, aren’t you glad that Dr. King decided not to stir the pot? Your statement is an embarrassment to your faith and its strong history of social justice.

Greg S.

January 21st, 2011
8:37 am

Unless the church is making the kids sign loyalty oaths I just wouldn’t worry about it.

V for Vendetta

January 21st, 2011
8:40 am

Just a Thought,

Fields of Faith crosses the line. The FCA masquerades as a student group, but it is little more than a mouthpiece for Christianity in public school. I have yet to see another student group affiliated with faith (or lack of faith) promote, advertise, and downright cajole their fellow students in the ways that FCA does DAILY. There are more signs for FCA and their related events at some schools than there are for any sport, club, or event.

As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be terribly bothered by holding a graduation ceremony in a church; however, some of the previous posters’ arrogant and narrow-minded attitudes towards such a topic only serve to reinforce why I am an atheist.

Elisabeth

January 21st, 2011
8:40 am

I graduated in Dekalb in 1989 and it was in the gym. You could get up to 4 tickets per student @ $10 a ticket and that was it. Everyone else waited at home for the after party.

It’s like prom….the more expensive the venue the more it cost. If every student who wanted to participate had to pay $500-$1000 (and I mean EVERYONE who wanted to participate) then how many complaints would you hear saying “we can’t afford that…..why don’t we hold it in the mega chruch”??????

Coexist

January 21st, 2011
8:41 am

As a Christians, it would not bother me to attend a function in a religious venue which is not a church. My faith and relationship with Jesus is not a building, but my personal relationship I have with Him in my heart and visiting a Mosque or Synagogue for an event is not going to change that.

Lastly, why is it that the world expects Christians to be tolerate of other faiths yet other faiths aren’t expected to be tolerant of the Christian faith. Face it…Georgia is predominately a Christian state.

V for Vendetta

January 21st, 2011
8:44 am

Philosopher,

Though we are often at odds, I think we agree here. I was shocked by the amount of Christian doctrine was being taught by a former HISTORY teacher at my school. She was a Young Earth Creationist (another word for idiot), and she was teaching HISTORY.

As a public school teacher, I am saddened by some teachers’ willingnss to promote their Christian beliefs in the classroom (and the administration’s dismissal of it). I prefer to focus on the curriculum, facts, logic, and reason.