From USA Today:
Actually, there’s no prayer at all.
The newest battleground could be a church building itself — and whether it’s a proper venue for public school graduation ceremonies. In school districts searching for ever-bigger venues at bargain prices, churches are an appealing (and weatherproof) alternative to civic centers, high school gyms and athletic fields.
An advocacy group that monitors church-state disputes says it has intervened in nine proposed church commencements in seven states over the past two years.
In the latest episode, five Connecticut school districts last year said they’d hold their June commencements at an area megachurch. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) complained and all five scuttled their plans, but one, in Enfield, Conn., changed its mind after assurances from a “Christian legal advocacy” group — The American Center for Law & Justice — that it would support the district if the ACLU sued.
The Enfield school board voted 6-3 on April 13 to rent the church for two high school graduations. Now the ACLU says it may sue on behalf of unidentified students, saying the decision is disrespectful to non-Christian families “forced to either attend graduation and be subjected to the religious symbols” or not attend at all, says Sandra Staub, legal director for ACLU of Connecticut.
Could the fate of such endeavors rest on whether the church looks like a church?
Greg Stokes, a pastor who chairs the Enfield school board, says The First Cathedral, a Baptist megachurch in nearby Bloomfield, Conn., is a generic space. “If you … walked into the main auditorium, you would not recognize yourself as being in a church.”
But Staub says the cathedral, with its red-carpeted, stained-glass amphitheater and religious banners, is “clearly a church.”
The district began renting it after the city redid its two high school fields with artificial turf five years ago. Though taxpayers agreed to pay for the new turf, they didn’t buy protective covers — and the manufacturer says the foot traffic of a commencement would void the warranty. The two schools’ gyms are too small — and renting nearby civic centers or arenas would cost as much as $70,000, Stokes says.
At $16,000, the church is a bargain, says Stokes, who notes that it seats more than 3,000 people and features big-screen TVs so “nobody misses their child.”
“It simply came down to a decision based on what we could afford,” he says.