Graduation ceremony for the class of 2007 to be held at church
In a closed-session decision this evening, the Board of Education voted 5-3 to restore Jericho City of Praise as Blair's graduation venue.
The Board's vote, a reversal of their previous decision, will allow Blair to hold graduation at Jericho instead of returning to last year's site, the Prince George's Equestrian Center. Jericho was rejected as a graduation venue after the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a small interest group based in Washington, D.C., filed a legal objection in June 2005. The PTSA appealed the decision after parents complained about the Equestrian Center, which can only accommodate about half as many guests as Jericho and charges a higher fee to use the facility.
The Board did not provide any public explanations for their new decision, but a written decision and order will be approved at a later date.
The PTSA submitted an appeal to the Board of Education last December, challenging then President of the Board Charles Haughey's August 2006 decision to reject Jericho as Blair's graduation venue. The Board decided to have Superintendent Jerry Weast review the PTSA's appeal before a formal vote. Weast wrote to the PTSA on Jan. 16, stating that his decision remained the same and that he still believed holding the commencement ceremony at Jericho would be a violation of the constitutional right to separation of church and state.
While Weast was unable to reject the appeal himself, his reaffirmation of the previous decision put pressure on the Board to vote against Blair, said PTSA Counseling Advisor Miriam Szapiro.
The PTSA submitted a new legal memorandum and letter of appeal on Jan.22. Gene Schaerr, an attorney from the law firm Winston and Strawn who has been working pro-bono on the case since August, wrote, in the memorandum, "the law is quite clear that using the Church presents no serious problems under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution."
The letter of appeal also stated that Blair, as a "predominantly working class" community, could not afford to use more expensive facilities like The Comcast Center, which would cost nearly $30,000, and that less expensive alternatives were inappropriate for the occasion. The Equestrian Center, which has a capacity of 4,500 while Jericho seats 10,000, did not have enough space to fully accommodate Blair's large graduating class. Jericho has been offered to Blair for free, while the Equestrian Center cost about $3,500.
PTSA Co-President Deborah Stoll was pleased with the Board's decision and recognized the difficulty of going against Weast's statement. "I think it was a very tough decision for [the Board] to take that stand," Stoll said.
SGA President Eric Hysen thought that the Board's decision was correct and would satisfy students. "I'm happy that the Board voted to support what every Blazer I've talked to believes," he said.
The Board's decision came just in time to finalize graduation invitations, which were due to the printers on Jan. 29.
Though Jericho removes all movable religious icons for Blair's graduation ceremony, the church will not curtain off a glass window depicting religious icons and "Jesus is the Lord" inscriptions. Stoll believes the religious art was too inconspicuous to merit concern, but State Senator Jamie Raskin (Democrat - District 20) suggested that the PTSA post a disclaimer on the door of the church. This solution was proposed in last year's August Board of Education hearing, but did not persuade the Board to permit using Jericho. The disclaimer was mentioned again in January's letter of appeal.
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