Earlier this week, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union celebrated a win for church-state separation when the last of five public schools in Connecticut agreed to move graduation from a church to a secular venue.
In December, we sent letters to these school districts explaining that graduating students, their families and other guests should not be unconstitutionally subjected to religious messages when attending high school commencement.
Though the boards from all the public schools have complied with the request from AU and the ACLU, a few board members are not happy about it.
“Why don’t they mind their own business?” said one school’s board member who voted against the change of venue. She felt caving to the threat of a lawsuit sent the wrong message to students and called us “bullies.”
The Hartford Courant defended the stance of AU and the ACLU in an editorial yesterday, arguing that “ignoring the Constitution sends the wrong message to students.”
I agree. But I’m not at all surprised by this school board member’s remarks. For some reason, asking public schools to hold their graduation ceremonies at a secular venue seems to strike a nerve with a few people.
Last year at this time, Americans United also took some heat when news got out that we had asked three public schools and a community college in Elmbrook, Wisc., near Milwaukee, to move their graduation ceremonies from an evangelical Christian church.
Instead of calling us “bullies,” however, they called us “just evil.” Someone even wrote online that AU had “God Cooties.” (That seems pretty unlikely when AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn is an ordained United Church of Christ minister.)
Fortunately, it matters little what these people think because we know who the real bullies are – those who insist on pushing their religious beliefs on others.
Public schools are full of students from different religious backgrounds. When there are many secular venues available to choose from, why is it necessary to ask students to celebrate such an important day in their lives at a place that would make them feel unwelcome? Just because a majority of students may be of a particular faith, school boards have to remember that the Constitution requires them to respect the beliefs of all students.
We aren’t trying to push anyone around here. AU just wants to ensure that the law is followed and that student rights are respected.