In an admirable if slightly absurd effort to avoid liturgy and litigation, Church and State reached a compromise that will allow Neptune High School’s Class of 2011 to graduate June 17 inside a church building.
Neptune (N.J.) school district officials will cover electric signs that read “Holiness to the Lord” and “So be ye Holy.” And they will remove all hymns, prayers and religious content from the ceremony, Supt. David A. Mooij told the Asbury Park Press.
Church officials will keep a 20-foot illuminated exterior white cross unlit during the commencement, but we are not covering the cross,” the Rev. Scott M. Hoffman, chief administrative officer of the Methodist association that oversees the historic 6,500-seat Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove.
Summa cum Lordy.
This isn’t the first time Church and State have crossed over graduation ceremonies, although it is the first time this particular venue has been challenged, even though Neptune high grads processing under the cross for nearly 70 years.
Are we becoming more sensitive to America’s growing diversity, or are we just becoming too sensitive?
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1992 that including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause. But the graduation ceremony in that case was held on the school premises.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of conducting public school graduation ceremonies inside churches or other religious buildings.
In recent years, lower court judges have ruled both ways.
A year ago, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that Enfield high schools could not hold graduation ceremonies in a 3,000-seat megachurch called First Cathedral.
“By choosing to hold graduations at First Cathedral, Enfield schools sends the message that it is closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission, that it favors the religious over the irreligious and that it prefers Christians over those that subscribe to other faiths, or no faith at all,” U.S. Dist. Court Judge Janet Hall wrote.
“In addition to the character of the forum, the history and context of the decision to hold the graduations at First Cathedral also support the conclusion that, in doing so, Enfield Public Schools has endorsed religion.”
But the year before that, a federal judge in Wisconsin allowed Brookfield high schools to conduct their graduations in a 3,200-seat megachurch known as Elmbrook.
“A ceremony in a church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony,” said U.S. Dist. Judge Charles Clevert, who went on to say that most people would not view the Elmbrook School District’s decision to hold its graduation at Elmbrook as an endorsement of the church’s beliefs.
I guess Judge Clevert has yet to meet Judge Hall.
Public schools have been using nearby churches for graduation ceremonies for decades, especially across the South.
But the growing number of megachurches has given public school districts more, more comfortable and often less expensive options for graduation venues.
In late May, officials at Cherokee County (Ga.) High pledged to hold this year’s graduation ceremony at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, despite the possibility of a lawsuit.
County school board member Rob Usher told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the decision was purely secular.
First Baptist’s 7,500-seat megachurch is big, close, air-conditioned and, at $2,000, cheap. “It’s a fantastic facility, and the price is awesome,” Usher said.
On one hand, when we’re all talking about spending tax dollars more wisely and efficiently, doesn’t pragmatism trump dogmatism?
On the other hand, imagine the outcry if a public school decided to hold a graduation ceremony inside a synagogue or, Peter King forbid, a mosque.
Should public schools hold graduation ceremonies in religious buildings?