Maryland School District Drops Plan For Graduation At Church

Americans United Praises School Officials For Providing Proper Funds For Appropriate Setting

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today praised a Maryland public school district for dropping plans to allow a high school to conduct its graduation ceremonies in a church.

This afternoon, Montgomery County school officials backed off a decision made yesterday to allow Montgomery Blair High School, one of the county’s largest schools, to hold its 2007 commencement exercises at Jericho City of Praise, a Pentecostal church covered with religious iconography, including an exterior wall with a large sign declaring “Jesus is The Lord!!!”

Instead, the school district decided to set aside additional money so that Montgomery Blair can rent a neutral venue for graduation ceremonies.

“The board has done the right thing by providing Montgomery Blair High with the means to find a suitable site for its graduation,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “A house of worship is not the proper forum for a public school graduation ceremony, where all students and parents should feel comfortable and welcome.”

Americans United sent a Jan. 25 letter to the Montgomery County Board of Education urging it not to allow the high school to hold graduation ceremonies at the church. Church officials had said they would not cover the building’s ubiquitous religious iconography during the event.

In its letter, Americans United said the school district could expose itself to costly litigation if it were to allow graduation ceremonies to occur in a religious setting. Citing a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, AU’s letter maintained that public schools are barred from “structuring graduation ceremonies to include religious messages and it is undisputed that religious iconography sends a religious message, albeit an unspoken one.”

The board was pressed by a parent-teacher-student association into voting to alter district policy allowing the high school to use the church for its graduation ceremonies. The group argued that the church was the most accommodating site for the large student body.

In 2005, Americans United urged Montgomery school officials to create a policy barring its schools from using houses of worship to conduct graduations. The district agreed and created such a policy, and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast had denied requests for Montgomery Blair High School to hold its graduation ceremonies in churches.

Today’s action by the school district paves the way for Montgomery Blair to be able to afford conducting its graduation ceremonies at a larger, neutral site, such as the Comcast Center on the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.