Public-school-sponsored baccalaureate service poses problem

Sunday, February 18, 2001

It's a bit early to be thinking about high-school graduation — unless, of course, you've got “senioritis.”

But as religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas and I discovered in Texas this week, some school districts are already worrying about the big event.

What's the problem? In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision last summer striking down the age-old tradition of prayer at football games, public school officials are understandably nervous about where to draw the line between church and state.

One Texas administrator wanted to know what to do about “our baccalaureate service.”

As soon as the questioner said “our baccalaureate,” we knew that the school could be facing trouble. Like many high schools across the nation, this Texas school has a long history of co-sponsoring a religious baccalaureate service with local churches.

Under current court rulings, however, school sponsorship of a religious service is unconstitutional. To keep sponsoring baccalaureate (while hoping no one objects) is to set the school district up for an expensive lawsuit.

When we began to explain all of this to the Texas principal, she grew agitated. “But we can't lose baccalaureate!” she exclaimed. “It means too much to our students and parents.”

So we gave her the good news: Communities can keep baccalaureates that are privately sponsored. Parents, faith groups and others are free to sponsor religious services for graduating seniors who wish to attend.

Many school districts have already shifted the baccalaureate from school to private sponsorship without experiencing any controversy or confusion.

Some communities hold an interfaith event. Others have more than one baccalaureate, each sponsored by a different religious tradition.

The principal pressed us further. Does this mean that the baccalaureate must be completely severed from the school? For example, can it be announced at school? Can it take place on campus?

We responded that it's constitutional for the school to announce the baccalaureate just as it announces other important community events affecting the lives of students. And if the school allows community groups to rent or otherwise use its facilities after hours, then the community-sponsored baccalaureate may be held on campus under the same terms.

This arms-length arrangement may strike some people as making a simple thing difficult. Why worry so much about “school sponsorship” of the baccalaureate?

The first and foremost reason is because a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended religious service is consistent with our commitment to religious liberty. Under the First Amendment, every student has an inalienable right to choose in matters of faith without governmental interference or coercion.

Secondly, religion is only free and authentic when it remains independent from governmental control. When faith groups or parents organize a baccalaureate, they can decide for themselves what prayers to pray and what sermons to preach.

Did these arguments convince the Texas principal to rethink the organization of her school's baccalaureate service? She didn't say.

Sometimes school officials resent being told what they can't do under the First Amendment. But the hope is that they'll get beyond the resentment and start to focus on what they can (and must) do to uphold constitutional principles.

Tags: , ,