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When schools go to church, conflict follows

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Charles C. Haynes
May 21, 2011

Like thousands of other public school students across the country, seniors in Irving, Texas, will graduate from high school next month—although in Irving they’ll go to church to get their diplomas. The venue is the Potter's House, a megachurch led by Bishop T.D. Jakes, site of Irving commencements since 2004.


But this year’s ceremony will be the last mixing of secular and sacred during graduation in the Dallas-area school district. After pressure from some parents and students (supported by the American Civil Liberties Union), school officials promised to find another place for graduation beginning in 2012.


Similar clashes are taking place in school districts around the country. Last year a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction requiring the Enfield, Conn., schools to move graduation from First Cathedral, a Christian church. Objecting families are now back in court seeking a permanent ban.


Although Enfield school officials insisted that the decision to use the church was based on such factors as space and affordability, the court found that “holding public school graduations in a church, designated as such and dominated by religious symbols, coerces graduating seniors and their guests to support religion, specifically First Cathedral and what it represents.”


Not all judges agree. In 2009, a Wisconsin judge ruled that the use of a Christian church for graduation by the Elmwood school district did not violate the First Amendment—even though students had to pass under an immense cross to receive their degrees. Despite the legal victory, Elmwood school officials opted in 2010 to avoid more litigation by moving the graduation back to school property.


Other school districts would rather fight than switch. Earlier this year, the school board in Cherokee County, Ga., voted to keep holding graduation at the First Baptist Church, defying the threat of legal action from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In an emotionally charged school board meeting, hundreds of citizens turned out to demand that graduation stay in the church.


Legal line-drawing in these cases isn’t easy when courts are asked to sort out motives and justifications for using houses of worship for public school events. Was the local church chosen because no comparable secular space was available or affordable? Or are school officials endorsing the religious ties that bind the majority of parents and students in their community?


Then there are tangled questions of entanglement. In the Connecticut case, the judge was disturbed by the practice of school officials’ picking and choosing which religious symbols to cover as they tried to “secularize” a holy space.


In some of these communities, citizens of the majority faith appear to have a hard time distinguishing between “our schools” and “our church”—especially when school comes to church.


Last week in Gwinnett County, Ga., for example, Parkview High School students went to a local church to take Advance Placement exams (ostensibly because of space limitations at the school). Church volunteers greeted them in the parking lot with invitations to pray. After a parent complained, school officials asked the church to stop the practice. But church members were still doing it the next day.


“We never thought that would be an issue,” the church’s pastor told the news media. “We thought being able to help anybody particularly on testing would be helpful to them.”


The lower courts might disagree on the fine points of school-church cooperative agreements. But even judges inclined to allow such arrangements agree that school officials must demonstrate a clear, secular, educational purpose for holding a public school event in a house of worship. And they agree that school programs using facilities of religious institutions must not be opportunities for proselytizing by clergy or anyone else.


When contemplating use of a church for graduation, school officials would do well to consider Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s views in Lynch v. Donnelly, a 1984 Supreme Court decision.


The establishment clause of the First Amendment is violated, she argued, when government endorsement of religion “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”


If there’s any time when students shouldn’t be made to feel like outsiders, it would be at their high school graduation.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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