Monday, February 15, 2010

Public High School Graduation Ceremony in a Church

Across the nation, primarily in the last three years, public school boards have been criticized by both Americans United (AU) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for holding high school commencement in a religious building. Public schools in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have been challenged (and in some cases sued) on a constitutional platform because of what the AU and the ACLU consider to be a blur of church and state. This past week, the AU and the ACLU celebrated the fact that the last of five public schools in the state of Connecticut has agreed to move its graduation ceremony from a church to a secular venue. Articles were posted by both the AU and the ACLU.

The first question I would pose is, are the arguments made by the AU and the ACLU correct? Is holding a public high school graduation ceremony in a church, or any religious venue unconstitutional?

In my opinion, yes, holding public high school graduation in any place of worship is certainly unconstitutional. In these cases, using a church as the venue was based neither on availability nor size accommodation; rather it was simply based on tradition. However, holding commencement in a church is obvious endorsement of one particular religion over another. Public schools are supposed to be a secular place of education and students graduating from these institutions should thus be handed their diploma in a secular setting. Commencement in a church, synagogue, mosque, or any other religiously affiliated space is unconstitutional as well as inappropriate in a society that is multi-cultural and multi-religious. This act violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. These are public, not private or religious, schools and are funded by the government. Hosting high school commencement in a location dedicated to a religious purpose is a blatant blur of church and state. The government is forbidden from establishing any particular religion, secularism is what is constitutional.

There are also perceptible social implications of holding high school commencement in a religious space. How would you feel if you attended a public high school and your graduation was held at a venue steeped in religious symbols and iconography? More specifically, what if you did not follow that particular religion or disagreed with its beliefs and teachings?

Staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut put it nicely when he stated, "regardless of intent, when schools host graduation at The First Cathedral, they devalue the faith of students and families in the religious minority." Some students and their families felt "unwelcome" during graduation ceremonies at the church because of the large presence of Christian symbols and iconography. In reference to one of the cases in Wisconsin, Americans United's Executive Director Barry Lynn remarked that "students literally [had] to walk up under a giant cross to get their diplomas." As an individual not of the majority faith, I would certainly have felt uncomfortable in this setting even if the ceremony itself was inherently secular and I knew that the reason for hosting graduation in a church was for practical purposes. I would not expect my public high school to host its graduation at my synagogue simply because it is only two minutes from the high school grounds and is large enough to hold all 210 graduates and their families. Further, I imagine students not of the Jewish faith would likely feel like an outsider in this scenario.

In a lawsuit in New Jersey, a Muslim student sued his public high school for unconstitutionally hosting his graduation in a Baptist church. he was unable to attend his high school graduation because "his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God." In this case, a student who attended a secular, public high school was "forced to choose between honoring [his] education and [his] faith." This is a decision no student should have to make.

Hosting a public high school graduation in a church is clearly blurring the wall between church and state. The AU and the ACLU are correct in their argument that such actions are unconstitutional and definitely not secular. Holding such an event in a place of worship presents a variety of problems for religious minorities as well as other, such as the gay population. However, what if hosting graduation in a church or other religious venue is the most practical, least expensive, chosen by the student body, and/or supported by the majority of students and families in the community? Should exceptions be made or should this be an absolute ruling?


Abby P said...

This article once again brings up the problem of religion and public schools. Personally, I agree that public school graduations should not be held in religious venues. This is an endorsement of one particular religion over another. Those in the religious minority would most certainly feel ostracized by having their graduation in a place of religious worship that did no coincide with their religious views. Despite the fact that the schools were trying to keep with tradition, this does not take away from the fact that the school, by holding the graduation ceremony in a church, is actively promoting religion. I attended a private, religiously-affiliated school; so our graduation was held in a church. But that is quite distinct from a public school that is not supposed to promote one religion over another. I believe that public schools should hold their graduation ceremonies in secular venues.

Justin M said...

I believe that issues of practicality should not play a role in the case of where a public school graduation ceremony is held. The mere fact that a school can save a few dollars by having their graduation ceremony in a religious facility seems unimportant in this case. A monetary benefit to a school should not suffice as a reason for blurring the distinction between Church and State. Furthermore, I also believe that it is illogical to have graduation at a religious site simply because the majority of students and faculty are in favor of the location. This completely ignores the point that the religious minorities are the individuals that need protected in the first place. In short, I also agree that public schools should only hold their graduations at secular venues.

CTConserv said...

I find it interesting that so many people think this is endorsement of religion or promoting one religion over another. They are using a building, not having a religious service! The first amendment's intent was to prevent the Govt from forcing people to practice a particular faith, not to protect people from being exposed to anything religious whatsoever. It also is to prevent anyone from denying to those of faith the right to practice faith. If entering a church building is forcing one to "practice" religion because of it's icons, then I guess a number of our Federal buildings, our currency, and many Govt things must also be avoided, because many have reference to God or have religious icons or themes displayed. This would include the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution! If this is supposed to be a "pluralistic" society, then why don't we teach our youth to respect, and not be offended by, others beliefs or non belief? It cant be one sided. There is greater education and understanding in knowing about other's faith than shielding everyone from anything that is "offensive" or different. It's only offensive if you cannot be open to other ideas and beliefs. Since there was no prayer or religious service planned as part of the graduation, I don't see this as endorsement of religion.