For the past three years, Montgomery Blair High School has held its graduations at the Jericho City of Praise, a 10,000-seat church in Landover that has plenty of space for extended family and friends and ample parking. And a sign proclaiming, "Jesus Is the Lord!"
Now the school, along with two others in Montgomery County that held graduations this month at the Jericho City of Praise, plans not to use any religious facility after parents complained that the church was inappropriate because of the display of Christian icons and symbols.
"I'm certainly not against convenience, and I'm certainly not against parents having the opportunity to bring a number of family members to the graduation ceremony," parent John Lippincott said, "but I don't see that as a compelling reason to overlook the fact that there is something fundamentally inappropriate about holding a public school graduation under a sign that clearly reads 'Jesus Is the Lord!" His daughter's Richard Montgomery High graduation was at the church. Sherwood High School also has used the church.
Many school systems hold graduation ceremonies at such venues as Constitution Hall in the District, Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia and the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro to accommodate larger crowds. Montgomery school officials said the county has few facilities large enough to hold graduates and their extended families. And before his departure, former Prince George's County superintendent Andre J. Hornsby, citing a lack of facilities there, sought to build a 5,000-seat gym for countywide ceremonies.
Montgomery Blair Principal Phillip F. Gainous said his school began using the church in 2002, after officials at the Show Place Arena no longer could accommodate them. He said that some parents initially were concerned about ceremonies being held at a church but that after the event, most were pleased with the facility.
Gainous acknowledged the presence of religious symbols -- some doves and a banner -- but said it was not overwhelming.
"The service is great and every seat is just wonderful,'' he said. And because of the size of the venue, the school did not have to limit the number of guests that students could invite, he said.
But some parents objected and contacted Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which promptly notified the school system.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the organization, said Montgomery officials "are making a good-faith effort to find an alternate location for the graduations next year. They're making an effort to make sure no one feels like a second-class citizen at their own graduation."
But, Lynn added: "I'm not sure, frankly, why this is generating such controversy. The convenience doesn't override the constitutional interest of students. I think that there's a large number [of people] who probably couldn't care one way or another" about holding the graduation in the church.
School officials said that regardless of the legal debate, they do not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable and would suggest that high schools hold future graduations at non-religious venues.
Still, several parents who had looked forward to graduation at the church have banded together to plead with school officials to keep the venue.
"People are furious," said Fran Rothstein, PTSA co-president at Montgomery Blair.
"I am a firm supporter of the separation of church and state. I think most of the people who have responded are very firm supporters of the separation of church and state," said Rothstein, adding that the use of the church was not something she and others saw as a conflict.
Rothstein said the dearth of large, affordable facilities in Montgomery makes the church an acceptable alternative.
"Faced with the choice of limiting grads to one or two guests or having it in a religious facility, I think the choice is an easy one," Rothstein said.
Gainous said church officials refused payment for renting the venue, but the school donated about $3,000 -- the amount they had paid to hold ceremonies at the Show Place Arena. Larger venues can cost as much as $12,500, Rothstein said.
Gainous said he holds out hope that Montgomery Blair's graduation will return to Jericho City. "It's not a church for us," he said. "It's a facility for graduation."
Still, Rothstein said Montgomery Blair has asked the Show Place Arena to reserve a spot for the school's 2006 graduation.
Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.