The separation of church and state continues to dog our political conversation and public reactions on a daily basis. Sometimes there are real issues involved that Christians are far too slow to recognize. The reverse is true when radical separation seems to be the goal. Some would like to remove all traces of religion from all elements of public life, period. This perspective surfaced again during recent high school graduation ceremonies both in Connecticut and in suburban Chicago. On Memorial Day U. S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled that two Connecticut schools could not hold commencement ceremonies in a church because "it was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion." These ceremonies were to be held on June 23 and 24 at the First Cathedral in Bloomfield because of space and price. The suit was brought to the court by two students and three parents.
Numerous schools are not able to conduct their graduation ceremonies on school property because there is no auditorium large enough to allow the crowds. Graduates are often allotted as many as six to eight tickets and when everyone who can participate takes part the space issue becomes real. Enter local churches and their empty buildings. Near where I live a favorite place for commencement services is the huge auditorium at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.
Lonnie Nasatir, Chicago regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, responded to graduation ceremonies at Willow Creek by telling the Chicago Tribune: “Holding the ceremony at the church sends a message to the students that the school prefers one religion over others and does not accept or include all students equally.”
As a sincere advocate and defender of the actual separation of church and state I read Nassatir’s statement and I have to scratch my heard. The ever present Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says it is clear (?) that “absent extraordinary circumstances, graduations should not be held in private church or religious institutions.” Yet the Supreme Court has never issued such a ruling! I am not a court scholar but my guess would be that the court is not likely to make such a ruling anytime soon either. Why? This issue simply doesn’t rise to the level of a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
The school districts argue that local church buildings often provide affordable and necessary space and the church leaders are very helpful in offering their space for community use. Both Barrington and Hoffman Estates high schools have held graduation ceremonies at Willow Creek for fourteen years. Some other area high schools use the nearby Sears Centre, which hosted as many as five ceremonies in one day this year. But Nassatir still argues: “Students of other faiths may feel excluded and less a part of graduation.” Note: “may feel.” We now head for a court because of how someone “may feel.” This thinking is what seems to be the real problem here.
I wonder if the graduating seniors care about this as much as those few people who insist on scrubbing all evidence of religion from all public life, even when their argument is so totally lame. Clearly, nothing is done at any of these ceremonies that is even remotely religious. And nothing is done to promote the host church or its beliefs, other than the simple fact that members of the community will see the inside of a church building. Everyone clearly knows this is not a religious event!
But hardened culture warriors, left and right, love this stuff. And the news media loves to report it. Both Fox and MSNBC feed on it 24/7. Frankly I am tired of it and don’t think most Americans take it that seriously. I wish we could get back to really dealing with the real issues that are directly related to the separation of church and state. Some of these are important to people of all faiths, as well as people of no faith at all.