Separation of reason and state

July 6, 2005, midnight | By Simon Kanter | 18 years, 10 months ago

Moving Blair's graduation makes little sense

Less than a week before graduation, the Montgomery County Public School system informed Montgomery Blair High School that it might not be permitted to hold the ceremony at the Jericho City of Praise, the 10,000-seat church that has hosted Blair's ceremony for the last three years. This was the result of a complaint filed by concerned parents to the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), which immediately notified MCPS.

When Montgomery Blair principal Phillip F. Gainous and PTSA co-president Fran Rothstein were notified of this abrupt change in policy and schedule, "He and I raised heck with MCPS," said Rothstein in an email on the PTSA list-serve. "Regardless of the legal issues involved, we felt that the Class of 2005 had already suffered more than their share with senior Andrew Helgeson's death, and derailing graduation seemed unconscionable."

Their clamor was enough to save the 2005 graduation, but they didn't have as much luck with future graduations. Rothstein continued in the email to say that Blair has already requested a reservation at the Equestrian Center, otherwise known as the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, for the next year.

The concerned parents, including some from the two other schools that have held their graduations at the City of Praise, Richard Montgomery and Sherwood, were upset about the fact that the graduation ceremony was being held in a church with a few Christian references. "There is something fundamentally inappropriate about holding a public school graduation under a sign that clearly reads `Jesus Is the Lord,'" said John Lippincott, whose daughter recently graduated from RM, to the Washington Post.

There is also something fundamentally inappropriate about threatening a graduation mere days before it takes place for selfish ideological reasons. Graduation is one of the single most important events of a student's life, especially considering that a good number of these students are the first to graduate high school in their extended families.

So in order to try and correct this "fundamentally inappropriate" action, the minority opinion contacted the AUSCS, which in turn convinced MCPS to move next year's graduations out of the church based on irrelevant separation of church and state principles. According to Rothstein, the organization cited a 1992 Florida court case, which ruled that graduation ceremonies could not involve religious practices like prayers. However, neither the court case nor the Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state apply to the Blair graduation issue.

Irrelevant legal concerns

First off, the separation of church and state does not apply in this situation. In no way is the school or the graduation ceremony involved in religious practices, nor is it attempting to force any religion or religious beliefs on the students.

Two Supreme Court cases dealing with statues of the Ten Commandments on public property and the separation of church and state were just recently decided, and a different verdict was issued on each case. The critical difference between the two in the Court's decisions was whether or not the intent of the group that sponsored the display was to further religious beliefs. In the Texas case, the Ten Commandments statue was part of a larger, secular display of monuments and was funded by a secular organization; this what the Court deemed constitutional. But the other statue in the second case was deemed to have an unconstitutional religious purpose because the group that sponsored it wanted to further its religious beliefs in a public courthouse display. Thus, one monument was allowed to remain, but the other was deemed unconstitutional and ordered to be removed.

The principle of these cases applies to the current situation. The intent of the graduation ceremony is to graduate the students, not advertise or promote Christianity. Thus, by the precedent set by the Supreme Court, holding graduation in the Jericho City of Praise is constitutional.

The AUSCS also brought up the 1992 Florida court case involving prayer in a graduation ceremony. This was deemed illegal because it threatened the religious beliefs of non-Christian students. However, this case is also absolutely irrelevant, as there is no religious content in the Blair graduation ceremony. Therefore the threatened legal action by the AUSCS is baseless.

Changing minds

Ever since 2003 when Blair first used the church for their graduation, many parents have expressed concern when they were informed of the location. However, almost as many came away from the ceremony very pleased with the facility and indifferent over the miniscule number of religious references and images in the church.

"When my daughter graduated in 2003 and it was the first time it was going to be held there [Jericho City of Praise] I was irate," wrote a woman who only gave her name as Carol in an email to Rothstein. But she went on to write, "I will say that it was a lovely ceremony, there was room for everyone and you were close to the kids so you could see well, hear well and I must say I changed my mind. I would advocate for the continued use of the facility."

Another parent with a similar view, Judy Kirpich, wrote, "Like so many others I was disturbed. I wondered how my Orthodox Jewish in-laws would feel. Well-it could not have been more wonderful, and as a practicing Jew, I did not feel upset at all."

Rothstein also said that the church was incredibly understanding and helpful in removing all potentially offensive religious displays. "I know the church made every effort to cover or remove every coverable or removable religious artifact."

From these testimonials we can see that the church is minimally offensive and maximally accommodating to Blair's needs. This church is one of the only places in our area large enough to house close to 1,000 graduates and their entire families, not to mention the fact that it is given completely free of charge. Facilities of similar size and convenience, such as the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland, cost upwards of $10,000 to rent.

When faced with such staggering advantages, there is no room for petty ideological concerns. If someone is offended by the word Jesus on the outside of the building, then they might consider turning a blind eye for a few minutes so that everyone can enjoy the most comfortable and convenient facility available. America is a country based on the principle of the power of the majority, but when the vast minority wants to sacrifice the physical comfort of everybody for the ideological comfort of the few, they have crossed the line. While the complaining parents do have a legitimate concerns about being uncomfortable in a church, MCPS acted rashly in moving the graduation ceremonies and needs to move them back to the Jericho City of Praise before it's too late.

Simon Kanter. Simon "The Food Guy" Kanter is the silliest person you will ever meet. Though his true joy in life is posting recipes, Simon finds time to spend patting himself on the back for his witty remarks, breeding Trogdors, stealing markers, staplers and other convenient appliances, … More »

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