The Rev. John C. Macon founded the Clinton Christian School in southern Prince George's County 12 years ago because he wanted his daughter "to be able to receive a Christian education. People who send their children here", he said yesterday, "know exactly what they are getting, what our values are and that's why they send them here."
Because he believes strongly in those values Macon said yesterday that graduation ceremonies for the school, originally scheduled for last night, would not be held "under any circumstances," unless Michael A. Bongiorni and two other boys were excluded.
Bongiorni, 18, valedictorian and president of the senior class was expelled Wednesday for dancing and drinking beer in a Marlow Heights discotheque last week.
Friday, his parents obtained a preliminary injunction in Prince George's County Circuit Court ordering the private school not to hold ceremonies with Bongiorni.
That night Macon told a meeting of the parents of the 21 graduating seniors that he was postponing the graduation and would go to court this week to fight the injunction. Yesterday, despite increasing pressure from the parents, who are virtually unanimous in wanting the ceremony held as scheduled, he said he would stand firm.
"I started this school and I started my church and I've fought for these beliefs and for these rules for 14 years," Macon said. "I can't compromise my beliefs now, not for a boy who is a disgrace to his class."
Debbie Beaver, class salutatorian who would have delivered the graduation speech in Bongiorni's absence, said that the class was behind him.
"First of all, they'd been punished once," she said. "I think they were punished for something I don't think is wrong. We all have always thought that the rules apply only in school.
"If they applied the rules 24 hours a day there might be one senior who's entitled to graduate."
Parents of other students said yesterday that while they believed the three youths were wrong to be drinking, they felt they had been punished sufficiently when they accepted paddlings from school principal Gary Beard.
"The preacher has done wrong," said Morris Heffner, whose daughter Donna would have graduated last night. "I told the preacher he wasn't being a good Christian, that God forgives and he should too.
"I have two other girls in the school and I'm going to pull them out unless the preacher leaves. He was in a bitter mood. He said nothing was open for discussion. That is wrong. I feel for the Bongiornis."
Rose Settle, mother of Steve, said the students not involved in the incident weren't being considered. "There are 18 other children involved in this and they're all being punished too," she said. "I don't think it's right. They were spanked and that should be the end of it."
Macon said he felt bad for the other 18 students, but would not change his mind. "This is a shame because there are 18 children involved who haven't done anything wrong. But I cannot obey the injunction. It would violate my Christian ethics. If I lose in court then I will give the students their diplomas without a ceremony."
"I was hoping and praying that this wouldn't happen," Albert Bongiorni, Michael's father said. "It's a shock and a disappointment. I just don't know why the pastor would want to do this. He said his family would be at the Bible Baptist Church as scheduled last night.
Michael Bongiorni said that several of his friends had called expressing their support. "That's lifted some of the burden," he said. "It's nice to know my friends are standing behind me. I thought I might lose all of them after this."
The school has two campuses, one for kindergarten through second grade in Clinton and the new campus for third through 12 grade in Upper Marlboro. It has only gone through 12th grade since 1972.
"I think in the long run this will be good for our school," Macon said. "This will reassure people that we stand up for what we believe in, that they will be getting what we tell them we are when they send their children here."
The school currently has just under 1,000 students enrolled. Known for its strictness and the religious training it offers, the school has a list of 32 rules, all of which call for demerits if violated.
Drinking and using drugs call for automatic expulsion and violations such as dancing, smoking and kissing are worth 50 demerits. Bongiorni and his parents say that the rules apply only at school and at school-sponsored events.
"He knows that isn't true," Macon said. "I'm a Baptist preacher and I've taught and preached total abstinence all my life at school or not. The students are read the demerit list during the first hour on the first day of school. The boy knew the rules. At this point I just can't compromise what I believe in."
"I've always liked the kind of education Michael's gotten at the school the last five years and the fact that they give a boy a Christian education," Albert Bongiorni said. "But Michael did not violate the rules. He's entitled to graduate with his class."
Armand Beard, who's daughter Laura was also scheduled to graduate last night said he thought both sides had made mistakes.
"I feel for the parents of the boy," he said. "He had been punished. I told Macon he should compromise and let the boy march but not make his speech, and that he should be more considerate of the others involved.
"But I don't think being a Christian is confined to certain areas. You don't go through life with a warden watching you. The boy was wrong too."
Unless the court reverses Friday's injunction it appears unlikely now that any ceremony will be held. "I think the whole thing is effectively canceled," Beard said. "John Macon isn't going to change his mind on this."