Graduating To A Better Understanding Of The Constitution: Public Ceremonies Shouldn't Be Held In Churches That Hate

Shouldn’t it be obvious that gay students and their families might blanch at attending a public ceremony in a church that actively campaigns against them?

Imagine the pride I felt this weekend when my 16-year-old daughter handed me a copy of her high school’s newspaper featuring the first two news stories she has written for that publication.

Silver Chips is an award-winning student newspaper, and I’m pleased that my daughter has joined the staff. I’ve explained to her that while print journalism isn’t exactly a growing profession these days, a person can usually always manage to make a living through writing. Someone will have to write all of that news online, after all.

As I looked over the newspaper, a piece on the Opinion Page caught my eye. Titled “Graduating to a better venue,” the editorial takes Americans United to task for persuading education officials in Montgomery County, Md., to stop holding graduation at a conservative mega-church in neighboring Prince George’s County.

The editorial notes that the superintendent “fears litigation that the venue could bring, and with good reason, considering the threats that interest groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have made against the county.”

It goes on to assert, “But recent judicial precedent provides clear evidence that such a lawsuit would be without grounds. A federal judge in Connecticut ruled this May that public schools could not hold graduation at churches if there were other viable options in terms of size, cost and location. And in this case, there clearly are no comparable alternatives.”

Wrong. The precedent shows the exact opposite. The availability of other alternatives was only one aspect of U.S. District Judge Janet Hall’s ruling.

Hall also wrote, “Upon attending graduation ceremonies, a reasonable observer would conclude that the Board’s April 13, 2010, decision to use First Cathedral sends the message that the Board embraces the religious values, symbols, and ideas present within First Cathedral. By choosing to hold graduations at First Cathedral, Enfield Schools sends the message that it is closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission, that it favors the religious over the irreligious, and that it prefers Christians over those that subscribe to other faiths, or no faith at all.”

I’d also add that there are plenty of available alternatives for this graduation ceremony. It is true that my daughter attends one of the county’s largest high schools and that many family members want to attend commencement. I understand the need for a space that can accommodate them all.

But it’s also true that this is the densely-populated, way-built-up Washington, D.C., metro area. We have lots of public facilities, including many venues affiliated with the numerous universities in the area. There is no need to hold graduation in a mega-church festooned with the symbols of one particular faith.

There’s one other aspect to this situation that has often been overlooked, and I’d like the editorial staff of Silver Chips to consider it: The church in question, Jericho City of Praise, is known for its public anti-gay activism. Yet my daughter’s school is incredibly diverse and known for its active gay-straight alliance and zero-tolerance policy toward bullies. Every year, students there participate in the “Day of Silence” that drives Religious Right groups crazy.

Isn’t there a contradiction here? Shouldn’t it be obvious that gay students and their families might blanch at attending a public ceremony in a church that actively campaigns against them and seeks to deny them full civil rights?

I look forward to seeing my daughter graduate in 2012. I’m sure I’ll be in the audience beaming. I’m thankful that the men and women who run my local public school system understand why I don’t want to do that in a fundamentalist church that shares none of my values.