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.
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