April 2015 Church & State | People & Events

A Massachusetts high school’s decades-old tradition of holding a baccalaureate ceremony in a church will cease thanks to an outspoken student and a complaint from Americans United.

Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham has traditionally held its pre-graduation ceremony, a baccalaureate, in one of four rotating churches — St. Denis Church, St. Edward the Confessor Church, the First Congregational Church of Westminster and People’s Church of Ashburnham. Oakmont Principal David Uminski said this has been the case for his entire time at the school.

“I’ve been with Oakmont for 20 years,” Uminski told the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise. “And for as long as I can remember, this has been part of the Senior Week celebration.”

Uminski also said he never considered the ceremony to be religious — despite its being held in a church and the fact that it was advertised as a religious event.

“It was held in a religious spot, but from our perspective, it wasn’t really a religious ceremony,” Uminski said. “Oftentimes, the speech would focus on growing up, graduation, becoming adults. Frankly, I don’t ever remember a strictly religious message.”

But one student felt differently. In October, senior Douglas Ciampi Jr. raised First Amendment concerns about holding an official school ceremony in a church and offered an alternative – “an evening of reflection.”

“(Baccalaureate) wasn’t something I’d be interested in attending or something most of my friends would be interested in attending,” Ciampi said. “I thought if the senior class was putting on this event, it should be as welcoming as possible. That’s what I was hoping the evening of reflection would be – something that appeals to more students.”

Ciampi also reached out to Americans United for help. Last fall, AU attorneys sent a letter to Oakmont, noting that the ceremony is advertised as a “non-denominational religious service.” AU advised the school to discontinue holding its baccalaureate in a church.

“[T]he First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from organizing, participating in and encouraging student attendance at religious ceremonies,” the letter said. “Accordingly, please ensure that the school district does not sponsor, promote, or assist in organizing any religious baccalaureate ceremonies, and that it does not encourage or facilitate the participation of students in such ceremonies.”

A change to baccalaureate policy required an alteration to the school handbook, the Sentinel & Enterprise reported, and changing the handbook required an official vote. But Ciampi had a great deal of support in this matter, and that eventually changed Uminski’s mind.

“We heard students and parents feeling like (baccalaureate) was not necessarily a welcoming type of ceremony because it was held in a church, which is contrary to everything we want to do, and we want to be within the bounds of the law,” Uminski said. “Hearing that, it changed my mind, and I thought, ‘OK, we need to revamp this whole thing.’”

In January, the school council voted to discontinue holding baccalaureate in a church and to change the ceremony to an evening of reflection. On Feb. 22, the district School Committee approved the change.

The inaugural school-sponsored evening of reflection will be held in June, and it will be planned by students, the newspaper said. Students will select readings for the ceremony, and music will be performed.

Uminski also left open the possibility of unofficial baccalaureates held in churches.

“Any of these churches can hold a baccalaureate ceremony for members of their congregation,” he said. “In fact, we’re kind of hoping someone does step forward.”

As for Ciampi, he is happy with the outcome.

“It was, like, five months of dealing with the school, and over the summer, a month of (research),” he said, “so it’s nice to see the end result.”