While more than 500 blue and white-robed seniors paraded onto W. T. Woodson High School's football field yesterday morning to a humid rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance," Lynn and Susan Stein, class of '80, trekked to their own ceremony at a nearby synagogue.
The twin sisters passed up their own graduation after six months of battling with Fairfax County school administrators to move the ceremony from the Jewish Sabbath.
"Though most of us disagree strongly with what the Steins wanted to do, we, as a generation, must value the type of individualism and courage that they displayed," said Everett Emerson, one of four student speakers at the two-hour-long school ceremony.
The Stein sisters were conspiculously absent from the commencement, thanks in part to Woodson Principal Robert E. Phipps who refused the girls' request that he call their names along with their 525 graduating classmates. Phipps refused comment on that decision.
A small army of newspaper reporters and television crews were on hand to record any display of support -- or opposition -- to the girls, whose protest sharply divided the 2,300 Woodson students. (There was no display of emotion although three speakers mentioned the Stein case briefly, including guest speaker Jim Clarke, a WJLA-TV reporter and a Woodson parent.
In a speech that included references to Arabian shopping sprees, Japanese automotive production, robots, joggers, DDT and presidential politics, Clarke took a swipe at school administrators for not consulting parents on a possibility of changing Woodson's graduation date.
"Would we have, back in January, agreed to reschedule the ceremony for some other day at our inconvenience?" asked Clarke. He said he could not answer because "we (the parents) were not consulted in the matter."
While the graduation ceremony was droning on before several thousands spectators, the Stein sisters were inside Olam Tikvah Synagogue surrounded by 100 relatives and fellow worshipers, many of them with tears filling their eyes.
"We have in our midst two brave sisters who were supposed to be at the public school graduation today," said Rabbi Itzhak Klires, who gave the girls a special role in the service, asking them to read a rarely used closing prayer.
The Stein sisters had arrived at the synagogue after a one-hour walk from their home, a ritual they observe in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition banning the use of automobiles on the Sabbath. As they walked through their hilly neighborhood, they were passed by a steady flow of traffic, much of it headed for their high school, near Fairfax City.
"I've never seen so much traffic," said Lynn as she and her sister waved at passing friends. They were joined by their father, Jerome, a Fairfax physician, a younger brother and two sisters, a number of friends and lawyer Michael Hausfeld, who had unsuccessfully argued their complaint in Virginia courts. After fighting for six months, they abruptly ended their lawsuit against the county last week, citing their fears of violence.
"I still think it's a shame all this had to happen," said Lynn as she and her family recalled the turmoil that accompanied their battle to have the Saturday graduation date changed.
The Steins argued first with Phipps, the Woodson principal, then with county school board officials and finally the Virginia Supreme Court, that their constitutional rights were violated when the school ceremony was scheduled on their Sabbath.
A Virginia state judge ruled two months ago that the graduation date would not violate the girls' religious freedoms because they were not required to attend. "It's a voluntary event," said Fairfax Circuit Judge Thomas J. Middleton. "There's no penalty for not attending."
The Stein sisters, both honor students at Woodson, said yesterday their attempt to change the graduation date had come at a price. Since their appeal was made public in March, the sisters say they have been threatened with violence and been targets of anti-Semitic remarks at school.
"I think the one thing I miss the most is not being able to say goodbye to everyone," said Susan.
"The thing that really gets me is he [Phipps] refused to even read our names when we asked him to last week," Susan said bitterly. "He said it had never been done."
After the mortarboards were tossed in the air and the seniors had swarmed off the football field, opinions on the Stein case still were divided. s
"I think they have every right to protest it," said senior John Lowe, wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and rubber sandals under his bright blue robe. "But I don't think religion should be that important so you miss your graduation day."
Freshman Adrienne Brown said she had opposed moving the graduation ceremony. "People already made their beach reservations and everything," she said.