Much Ado About Something: Yes, Church-Based Public School Graduation Is Really A Problem

You can walk into an empty church and immediately know exactly where you are. The religious symbols, the iconography, the pastor’s pulpit and other features will tell you that.

I wrote recently about Americans United’s protest against the use of a church for public school graduation in Cherokee County, Ga., and how it had stirred up some local residents. Apparently, our actions also caught the attention of folks in some other parts of the country as well.

For some reason, a weekly newspaper in Smithfield, N.C., has decided to weigh in on the controversy. Unfortunately, the Herald’s editorial is just a tad incoherent.

The newspaper asserts that AU’s complaint is “much ado about nothing” because a church isn’t just a physical building. A church, the paper argues, can be wherever people gather for worship. Sometimes people even use public schools for worship on the weekends, the editorialist notes.

Asserts the Herald, “Which raises an interesting question. If it’s wrong for a school to hold graduation in a sanctuary, why is it OK for a church to hold a worship service in a school cafeteria?...If the separation of church and state says that it is wrong for a school to use a church, why is it not wrong for a church to use a school?”

This is a classic case of attempting to assert that two situations are alike when in fact they are not much alike at all. Church use of school space is not like school use of church space.

For starters, no one is required to attend a service on the weekend that is being held in a public school that a church has rented. Public school graduation, by contrast, is by default a mandatory event. Students want to be there. They should be able to attend a public ceremony in a secular setting.

Secondly, when members of a church rent space in a public school, they take their religious symbols with them after the service. The cafeteria looks like a cafeteria again. The house of worship being considered in Cherokee County – Woodstock First Baptist Church – is clearly a religious facility. There is a giant cross hanging over the stage.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The place is, after all, a church. What is surprising is that so many people would argue that it’s no big deal for high school students to be compelled to visit a church to get their diplomas.

Finally, the Herald asserts, “absent worshipers, a church is just a building, much like a school without students is just bricks and mortar.”

This is simply wrong. You can walk into an empty church and immediately know exactly where you are. The religious symbols, the iconography, the pastor’s pulpit and other features will tell you that. Likewise with an empty school – desks, blackboards and rows of lockers tell the story. They send a message. You’re in a certain type of facility designed for a specific use. Sure, the building can be adapted for other uses – but that often takes some renovating.

One last thought on this: I am aware that some people who normally support church-state separation wonder if this is such a big deal. Some of them have contacted us about it. Fair enough.

Here is my response: The nature of the church in question matters too. I know nothing about Woodstock First Baptist, but let’s say this controversy were playing out in Lynchburg, Va., and the church being used for graduation was Thomas Road Baptist Church, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and now pastored by his son, Jonathan.

Now let’s say your son or daughter graduating from high school is gay.

Do you still think holding public school graduation in a church is a good idea?