The separation of church and state is taking a beating in New Jersey this month, where a high school graduation ceremony scheduled to be held in a church-owned auditorium has brought out the ACLU and its claws. OK, so kids in public school plus Christian imagery = not Constitutional. USUALLY.
But the debate over secularism vs. religion just got really confusing. It seems there is a case for making use of a building without supporting its values. For having separation be in motive if not in method. Apparently the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove is used for Sunday services and a popular stop for touring evangelists. But it's also been dubbed the "most impressive and largest enclosed auditorium in New Jersey."
It's been home to not just 70 years of graduation ceremonies for the Neptune High School but concerts for the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary (Peter Yarrow is Jewish). This summer it will host a concert by Herman's Hermits and Micky Dolenz of the Monkee (Dolenz is a well-known atheist). Although a religious setting, it's home to plenty of non-religious events.
When you're talking graduation ceremonies, generally parents want as large a space as possible so the whole fam can crowd in, grannies, gramps, and all, to see the little darling accept his diploma. What better place than the biggest auditorium in the state? Sure, there are crosses on the walls, but anyone who has driven past a church in their lifetime has SEEN a cross. It's not as though we can just pretend the presence of religion away.
As long as we have freedom from religious persecution, we will also have freedom of religion in the United States. That means religion will exist and at times intersect with secular America.
Point of fact -- what's truly important, in terms of separating church and state, is content. A graduation ceremony held in a football stadium doesn't include the words "defensive end" or "first down." Likewise, a public high school's graduation ceremony held in a church shouldn't include the words "God" or "Jesus." Neptune High School has yanked a song called "Onward Christian Soldiers" from its lineup to satisfy that requirement.
But the ACLU isn't happy. They want all religious imagery (including a huge cross outside the building) covered up or the ceremony moved. The owners of the auditorium refuse to meet the former demand, and the school has expressed the latter is impossible because graduation is just a month away. Finding a new venue, printing new programs, etc. would be cost-prohibitive and difficult (and as a parent, I can imagine the cost would be great for all those families reprinting their own invitations -- those things get pricey!).
I'm a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, and I agree it's a sticky wicket. I understand their mission. But I question its practicality. This isn't just a problem in Ocean Grove, it's something that happens across the nation with a host of high schools, challenged by too little space at the school. Often the only building in town large enough for the grads plus extended families is owned by a faith-based organization. And to meet the demands that EVERY family member attend, that's what schools choose.
Raised in a small town, I know what it's like to have events held in church halls because they're the only place big enough to fit the people. Many times my childhood church has been used by people of different religions for funerals simply based on its size (built more recently, it's better able to accommodate the crowds). They didn't feel forced to follow the religion of the building simply by being in the room.
Again, it's content, not setting, that matters. In fact, courts have proven that the mission of a building and the mission of a group making use of the building do not have to mesh. Just last year, a federal jury ruled the Boy Scouts of America couldn't be kicked out of a publicly owned building in Philadelphia simply because the BSA mandates members follow religious rules that ban agnostics, atheists, and gays.
Do you think the ACLU needs to keep pushing or back off? Can you think of a better option for these schools?
Image via Sister72/Flickr