Should Public Schools Hold Graduations at Churches?

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Should Public Schools Hold Graduations at Churches?
Public school graduations are being criticized for violating the separation of church and education mandate. Learn about the controversy facing cap and gowns in church.
When it comes times for public school graduates to march up the aisle to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance," the venue for the ceremony becomes an issue. Many high schools do not boast a large enough gymnasium or auditorium to house a significant number of graduates and family members, and outdoor stadiums are always vulnerable to stormy weather. Public venues, like professional arenas, can be quite costly to rent, leading some schools to look for affordable alternatives within the community.
In some cities, the apparent solution has been to hold graduation ceremonies in large church buildings, and pastors have been more than happy to offer their spaces to neighboring schools. However, public school graduations in churches have raised questions across the country about the separation of church and state. In fact, some schools have actually found themselves in the midst of court proceedings as a result of inadvertently combining religion with public education.
A Fight at First Cathedral
First Cathedral, a non-denominational mega church in Connecticut had opened its doors to no less than five high school graduations in previous years, according to an article in USA Today. The expansive church was chosen by the schools both for comfort and affordability.
However, not all the students and parents were comfortable holding a graduation ceremony in a venue flanked with religious symbols throughout the building. Three of the high schools that had held graduations at First Cathedral in the past voluntarily moved their ceremony to secular venues this year after complaints from students and parents. Two other high schools had originally planned to continue to host their graduation at the church until legal groups became involved in the controversy.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed litigation to force the high schools to move their graduations, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Barry Lynn, executive director for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the WSJ, "When you expect students of all faiths and no faiths to parade in front of a cross, a central symbol of Christianity, to receive their diplomas, you make many persons feel like they barely belong."
The American Center for Law and Justice is defending the Enfield schools' decision to host graduation in the church building. ACLJ attorney Vincent McCarthy countered, "Meeting houses in the early colonies were churches; that is where everyone met to discuss politics, economics, farming. There is nothing wrong with it."
After visiting First Cathedral, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled that the graduations must be moved. In her decision, Judge Hall wrote, "A reasonable observer attending the 2010 Enfield graduations would perceive the message that Enfield endorsed the readily perceptible religious views of First Cathedral based upon the character of that forum which Enfield schools selected."
Willow Creek's Graduation History
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, has been holding graduation ceremonies for 14 years, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. This non-denominational mega church is a popular venue because the expansive auditorium holds up to 7,200 guests comfortably. The absence of religious symbols within the church makes it a more welcome venue for secular events as well.
Nonetheless, the graduation ceremonies at Willow Creek do make some uneasy. Lonnie Nasatir, Chicago regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Tribune, "Holding the ceremony at the church sends a message to the students that the school prefers one religion over others and does not accept or include all students equally."
Despite concerns, many students like the idea of holding graduation in such a large space that allows them to invite extended family members to the event. Kelly Winner, a parent of a Barrington student and member of the nearby Jewish reform temple, told the Tribune, "If they did anything religious at graduation, I would be upset. But it's the content of the ceremony, not the venue, that makes that happen."
The Year of the Lord
Another Connecticut school is fighting its own battle between church and state, according to a report on FOX News. This year, seniors at a New Haven high school will not be receiving diplomas with the phrase, "the year of the Lord" included. The school district removed the wording after receiving complaints about the diplomas. Bob Ritter, a staff lawyer at the American Humanist Association, said, "It removes the bias toward Christianity and puts all New Haven students on an equal plane without religious bias."
Not everyone is happy about the change, however. Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, told FOX, "To base this decision, in part, on the need not to 'offend anyone' is disingenuous – it offends beyond belief the vast majority of Americans."
The separation of church and public school will certainly always be a divisive issue, and graduation ceremonies only continue to highlight the controversies that arise when religion is mixed with public education.

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