A public school district in Maryland has dropped plans to allow some of its high schools to hold graduation ceremonies in a Pentecostal church after concerns were raised by Americans United.
Officials at the Montgomery County Public School system have been grappling with the issue for the past few years. The big, suburban district north of Washington, D.C., includes several high schools with large student populations, making it difficult to find a venue that can accommodate all of the students and their families.
At least three high schools had been using the Jericho City of Praise, a mega-church in nearby Prince George’s County. In 2005, acting on complaints received from parents at Montgomery Blair High School, AU urged Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to find a neutral venue for graduation.
Americans United pointed out that the Jericho City of Praise is covered with religious iconography, including an exterior wall with a large sign declaring “Jesus is The Lord!!!” Church officials said they would not cover up the religious imagery.
Weast directed officials at Montgomery Blair to find another site for graduation. But a parent association at the school disagreed and began complaining to the county school board. The board then voted 3-2 to allow the use of the church.
Prior to the vote, attorneys at Americans United wrote a second letter, warning board members that continued use of the church could spark litigation. 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.”
Eager to defuse the situation, Weast put forth a compromise. He offered to give large high schools additional funds so that they could rent another facility for graduation. The most likely candidate is the Comcast Center, an 18,000-seat indoor stadium at the University of Maryland in College Park.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn praised the school officials for reaching a workable compromise.
“The board has done the right thing by providing Montgomery Blair High with the means to find a suitable site for its graduation,” said Lynn. “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.”
In 2005, the Brevard County, Fla., School Board also agreed to stop holding graduation ceremonies in a church after an AU lawsuit.