In FAIRFAX COUNTY, there are all kinds of liars. There are your usual liars -- cheating spouses and shifty car salesmen and men who tell women they look good in bowling shoes -- and then there is the school board. It is the biggest liar of all.
In recent days its representatives have testified in court that a graduation ceremony is not a very important event to a high school student. They say it is just another extra-curricular activity -- like the Latin Club. This is an assertion that contradicts everything you and I know about high school, America and high school students in general.
These pronouncements on high school life come in the case of two W. T. Woodson High School seniors, the Stein twins -- Lynn and Susan. They have gone to court to compel the school board to switch their graduation ceremony from a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, to what is call a religiously neutral day. There are, generally speaking, five such days in the week, -- four, in the event there are Moslems at Woodson.
The Stein sisters are devout Jews. If their graduation ceremony were held on Saturday, neither they nor their parents could attend. For you or me, this would be very disappointing. But then chances are we didn't graduate as the valendictorians of our classes. The Stein sisters, though, stand a good chance of doing just that.
This used to be considered quite a honor. The school board says it's a mere nothing. As for the girls' parents, they would have the thrill of seeing two of their children graduate with honors at once. In other places, a parent's heart would swell with pride, a tear would come to the eye. In Fairfax, we have the word of the school board that nothing like this happens.
Lawyers may debate whether the girls have a constitutional right to a graduation ceremony or whether the school board has done quite enough by simply scheduling the cermony, inviting the girls and letting them choose between their religion and their desire to attend their own graduation. But the constitution aside for the moment, you would think that the girls would have some sort of right as taxpayers, as students, as just plain human beings to be accommodated by the school board. But it won't.
Now, you have to understand that there is a serious matter of principle here. What scares the devil out of the school system is the prospect that if the girls win their case -- if right triumphs over might -- a precedent might be established. This could mean -- brace yourself -- no Friday night football. It could mean that any Jew or, as my sergeant in the army once said, any person with some weird religion, could demand that the Friday night games be halted -- or the Thursday chess club or something. Who knows what religions lurk out there?
But the school board has missed the point. Football really is an extra-curricular activity. It is strictly voluntary, limited by tradition to boys, and then only the biggest and most athletic of them. It is not, in case no one has noticed, an academic activity and it is certainly not a universal activity -- not something everyone does or has to do.
Graduation, however, is a whole different matter. It is the culmination of the high school experience. It is the ceremony where you get your diploma -- your honors, if you should be so lucky. Graduation is the logical last step of the high school years and, assuming that high school is still about education, it is the ceremony that says that you have been educated.
But Fairfax, jittery over football, has decided to fight the girls in court. That's its prerogative. It would have been a more noble thing to have approved the girls' request, to honor and respect their religious principles, to pick -- as almost all other school jurisdictions do -- another day, but the school board chose not to do so. It would have shown its students that the majority has an obligation to respect the rights of the minority. Instead, Fairfax has decided to teach a very shabby lesson.
Its legal position is one thing. Its moral position is something else. The school system has decided to bowl over two girls in the name of football or something. It has decided to deprive two parents of a singular day in their lives. It has compelled two girl to assert their religious beliefs in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable and it has singled them out as some sort of killjoys, mocking extra-curricular activity that nobody cares about, anyway. In this way, it has cheapened the event for everyone -- students and and parents and faculty. In Fairfax it seems as if only two people know what a graduation is supposed to be about. And they can't go.