Not Your Ordinary Cap and Gown June 4, 2010

Not Your Ordinary Cap and Gown

This past weekend, my Muslim friend graduated from The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. Her facebook album revealed that the commencement ceremony was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. One would assume Jesus looked down with a special disapproval at this particular graduation — as Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).

Obviously, the private Catholic University has every right to hold its own private school ceremonies and graduations in places of worship. Aesthetically, the Basilica is a truly stunning piece of architecture, and were it not a — well, a Basilica — it would be a beautiful location for a secular graduation as well.

And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recently, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State stated in a press release that a federal judge just declared a Connecticut school’s plan to hold graduation ceremonies at a Christian church unconstitutional. The school board was told to find an alternative venue.

Barry Lynn, the executive director of AU, said: “Though there’s no definitive U.S. Supreme Court decision barring public school graduation ceremonies from houses of worship, litigation across the country has made it clear that absent extraordinary circumstances, graduations should not be held in private church or religious institutions.”

Well, maybe.

There is extremely limited case law dealing specifically with the constitutionality of public school commencement activities held at a religious venue.  And these cases haven’t made it any higher than the state supreme court level. The few cases that have been filed mostly allowed the church venue, sometimes citing space and acoustic concerns.

Since a higher court would not likely have case law directly on point to guide its reasoning, let’s examine possible arguments using the established Supreme Court precedent:

Holding a public graduation in a place of worship violates the establishment clause. The Supreme Court has already placed prohibitions on prayer before football games (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe) during graduations (Lee v. Weisman) and before a public school day (Engel v. Vitale). The present case is no different. Holding a school graduation in a place of worship sends a message of state endorsement because the choice of venue states clearly, if silently, that the school finds the religion behind the venue important — especially if other religious and secular venues were not considered. Government and religion is excessively entangled when a nonbelieving student is forced to graduate in a religious building or else miss one of the most important moments in their adult life.


Using a church venue for a public graduation does not violate establishment clause. The present set of facts are distinguishable from established Supreme Court principles because each case stated above involved prayer — a distinctly and overtly religious activity that students were subjected to. Here, nothing is overt. To non-subscribers, a building that happens to be a church is just a building — just like a stick figure of Muhammad without the religious belief forbidding the depiction is just a stick figure. So long as the school pays for the facilities and there is no prayer or other religious activity during the commencement, using a passively religious location is completely constitutional.

While there are logical arguments on both sides, if the current trend of decisions continue, church held commencements are likely to be struck down.

Would you be mad if your graduation was held in a building normally designated as a place of worship?

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  • Zo

    My university graduation was held in Canterbury Cathedral, a gorgeous old building, and easily the nicest building with the capacity to seat a graduation ceremony for miles around. The whole thing was completely secular, and I think the general view was “Oh, what a pretty building”.

  • Luther

    As a resident of Connecticut I am pleased with the judge’s decision. Yet, it is important to note that one extra factor in the case was that the whole thing was engineered by very conservative faith based groups to test the law, gain donations, and not based on the actual needs of the students. Here is a column from this morning’s Hartford Courant that sums things up:,0,5231276.column

    The story here is the cozy relationship between the Family Institute of Connecticut, the American Center for Law & Justice and Enfield Board of Education Chairman Gregory Stokes and how they engineered a behind-the-scenes power play to move graduation and create a priceless public relations opportunity…

    “If Enfield had not resisted, it would have increased the power of aggressive secularism and caused further harm to the proper role of faith communities in our state. With Enfield’s willingness to stand up, others may now do the same,” Wolfgang wrote, boasting that “it would not have happened without the Family Institute of Connecticut.”

    “We secured the votes necessary to return graduations to First Cathedral but did not reveal it publicly until Tuesday — when it was too late for our opponents to respond.”…

    The Family Institute promised a tidy transaction: Change your vote and Robertson’s group would pay all of Enfield’s legal bills from a threatened court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over the graduation venue.

    Supporters have tried to portray the board’s change of mind to move the graduations as the will of the people and an honest effort to find a large facility.

    Court documents reveal a different tale…

    Also from Connecticut this week, Boy Scouts and their supporters getting well deserved flack:

  • if it were really… just a school using a cool looking religious place for graduation… then fine, especially if none from the school actually did anything religious. I’m all for awesome looking buildings.

  • Erp

    I think it depends on circumstances.

    First are no other reasonable facilities available (price, size, accessibility).

    Second can the space be made religiously neutral. Some religions do not decorate their space with obvious symbols, others have paintings, stained glass, sculpture, etc. which cannot be easily removed or hidden.

    Third does it impose undue burden on any student. Some religions such as Orthodox Judaism (some authorities) prohibit their members from entering places of worship belonging to other religions (this had led to some lawsuits over the use of churches as polling places).

  • Another Atheist

    My child’s school holds all school events including graduation at the church next door. As a charter school, they do not receive the same capital funds that regular public schools in the district do, so there is really no other alternative unless they do it off site at some other school. Even the playground would not be large enough for an outdoor event, weather permitting.
    It bothered me more when the church used to have “Jesus” in 6 foot high cursive accross the wall on the stage, but they remodeled last year, so now there is just a cross.

    In a perfect world, the school would have enough funding to afford a building with an auditorium, but I have zero desire to make an issue out of this with the school – it would only detract resources from the school, and who would pay the price for that? My child.

  • Matt

    I agree with other posters. It depends on the circumstances. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me too much as long as religion was kept out of it and it was just utilized as a venue for graduation. Any kind of active push from the church group to make it happen seems disingenuous though.

  • TychaBrahe

    I’m going to have to disagree. Look, I’m not a baseball fan, but if I were, or even if I were a Sox fan, if my commencement were held at Wrigley field it might annoy me, but I wouldn’t file suit of it. But even with the worst cross-town rivalries (and I lived with both the Chicago Latin-Francis Parker AND USC-UCLA rivalries) the opposing team isn’t telling their fans that you are truly rotten people, undermining the fabric of the nation, and responsible for the rise in crime and destruction of the family.

    A church is not just another building just because I don’t happen to believe in the faith of its followers. It’s a symbol of that faith and the teachings of that faith. And when the teachings of that faith include that you are subhuman, you shouldn’t be forced to go inside, even if the purpose is non-religious.

    And consider these situations: Child of a gay or lesbian couple is forced to attend a secular ceremony in a Latter Day Saint meeting house, knowing the role the Mormons played in the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Survivor of priest abuse is forced to enter a Catholic church to witness his daughter’s graduation ceremony. Jewish family has the choice to attend commencement at a Southern Baptist megachurch, knowing full well about the 1996 Conversion Doctrine.

    One also has to keep in mind that in the Connecticut case there were appropriately sized secular venues that were closer to the school and available for a similar cost. The church was presumably chosen because of its religious nature, not despite it.

  • silver fox

    I think it should be on a case-by-case basis.

    If the school is using the church simply because it’s large enough to hold all the teachers, students, friends and family gathered then there shouldn’t be any problem.

    My problem would be if they started off with a prayer or preformed a religious ceremony.

    If the school chooses to thank the priest/rabbi/whatever for allowing them to use the space, that’s fine. Asking the priest/rabbi/whatever to that gOd for allowing them to graduate…no, absolutely not.

    I can remember at one time, the French high school in my city held their grad ceremony in a church, but that was because their auditorium was under construction and it was less of a hassle to rent a place that already had all the seating and sound systems set up for the event rather than holding it in the only other space in the school large enough; the gym.

    Taking advantage of a preexisting structure is fine; shoehorning in religion is not.

  • CarolAnn :)

    My HS graduation was held in a place of worship – I’m from Texas and it was held in a hall inside a football stadium.

  • @ TychaBrahe

    “And when the teachings of that faith include that you are subhuman, you shouldn’t be forced to go inside, even if the purpose is non-religious.”

    I agree with this.

  • Frank

    “To non-subscribers, a building that happens to be a church is just a building.” And a cross stops being a religious symbol when it is declared a war memorial. And the ten commandments stop being religious when they appear in a courthouse and are presented as the foundation of our secular laws. Right? Come on! The Mohammad stick figures pissed off plenty of non-muslims. And a church is a religious place to non-subscribers as well as subscribers. This seems like a very simple issue to me. And I’ve never seen a school that didn’t have an auditorium or a cafeteria or a gym large enough to hold a graduation ceremony.

  • Claudia

    I think that its a case by case thing. Of course, if there are secular options in terms of the size of the room, location, price etc. they should be taken first. However I could concede that a religious hall be used if no decent non-religious venues were available (which I think is probably unlikely in most cases) and if you removed all religious symbolism from the place. I can appreciate that a stained-glass window can’t be removed, but a huge Jesus on the cross can and should.

    I don’t know if there’s a legal way of determining intent and whether it would be relevant. I’m pretty certain that in many cases it must be clear when the intention is to simply use a large space that can comfortably accomodate everyone and when the intention is to give a religious overtone to the event.

  • Alan Slipp

    It’s an interesting question. How many spaces can you name that are specifically devoted to marking ceremonial occasions in this way? Not a whole lot, if any at all. Reclaiming a religious space for a secular event seems entirely appropriate, given circumstances. Of course, given that this is the Catholic University of America, the circumstances don’t seem particularly auspicious, and the ACLU is right to object.

    I make the former statement only because I got married in a non-denominational chapel, in a ceremony with God talk specifically excised – so it is possible to use a religious space for specifically non-religious purposes. Only the truly conscientious would enable this to happen, however.

  • Ruru

    Heh, actually my pinning ceremony is going to be held in a local church. My classmates know of my baby eating ways and frequently joke about how I’m going to burst into flames as soon as I step on stage.

    The ceremony itself has no religious undertones to it and the church is the only venue available. Maybe the fact that I was a Forced-upon christian when I was a kid and spent a lot of time in churches is what’s making me not feel threatened by the act. I understand there’s no better place for it to be held. I know that religious symbols are silly little jokes. I’m not really too miffed about it.

    I think it depends a lot on the students who are being forced to go there. Does it concern them? If it does, then a new venue needs to be found.

    Still capable of free thought when religious images are being forced into your brain? Good. Take this as a lesson from the enemy. And spend your post grad party relishing the fact that a bleeding emaciated man isn’t staring you in the face every sunday trying to make you feel guilty for hhaving sex before you’re married.

  • My friend lives in CT and was indirectly affected by this decision, which her sister-in-law called “devastating”. I had to laugh.

    Guess what? They’re now holding the commencement ceremonies outside, on school grounds, where it should have been from the very beginning.

    Yes, there are other options. On school grounds, where most commencement ceremonies are held. The staff at my high school were intelligent enough to realize that holding anything at a church would have been a huge mistake, because ours was a public school.

    One question thrown at me during a debate I had with the parties involved was, “Whatever happened to majority rule?” And to that I responded, “You can’t have a vote on whether or not to follow the law and the Constitution.”

    And it’s really as simple as that. Hold your public school’s commencement ceremonies in a non-religious setting and there won’t be any problem.

    Regarding the article that Luther linked to above, the “proper role of faith communities” should be clear: stay out of issues regarding government-run and publicly-funded establishments.

  • Revyloution

    Personally, I love it when churches get used for secular purposes. For the most part, they are beautiful buildings (mega churches not included in that judgement).

    It’s the horrible waste of resources that always bugged me about churches. Six and a half days a week, they just sit there sucking up space and energy. When they open their doors and allow people to use them for any reason, they get a measure of respect from me.

    Even more than that, I enjoy seeing churches transformed into other things. There is a beautiful florist shop in Coldwater Creek, Idaho that is in an old church. I just love to see that building turned into something more useful.

  • plutosdad

    It is a difficult question.

    regarding TychaBrahe’s point about offense:
    I do not think because atheists may be offended and angry that means it is respecting an establishment of religion. Is offense the bar we measure that by? I didn’t think it was.

    So even if, say, a gay person had to meet in a Mormon tabernacle, that is sad but does it violate their rights? Or some of us had to meet in a Catholic or other church we left for various reasons and are angry with. Are our rights violated? We have no right to not be offended. Since if we did, then isn’t the outside of the building just as offensive as the inside? And what about buildings attached to the temple portion but owned by it?

    It seems when you start talking about feelings, that is the slippery slope leading to suppression of freedom rather than holding it up.

    It may be respecting an establishment of religion, or not. but either way, I don’t think hurt feelings or offense should be our guide, at least not for the legality (a school administration should consider feelings of students and parents of course).

  • maddogdelta

    I think the first comment nailed it. This wasn’t an innocent “we need a bigger place and the church is cheap”

    This was a deliberate move to get the school involved in prostelyzing. At which point, the ruling was correct.

  • Krissy

    if it was a temple full of greek and roman mythology i’d prefer it to a secular hall!

  • Brent

    I teach in a public school and our graduation is actually held at the state capitol building, but our convocation is held in a nearby church. The reason is that we simply don’t have a building on campus that is large enough to hold all of the students, their parents and family, and the entire faculty and staff. Another issue is cost. There are concert halls and stadiums in the area, but they are usually much more expensive to rent than a church. And before you suggest we hold the ceremony outdoors, you should come visit Oklahoma in August. In short, the reasons for holding school functions in churches are largely practical.
    However, I agree that it is pushing the limits of the establishment cause. For anyone who thinks it is not a first amendment issue, how would you feel about holding graduation in a mosque or a synagogue?

  • Daniel

    “Would you be mad if your graduation was held in a building normally designated as a place of worship?”

    I am an atheist since early childhood and I despise religion with all my heart. So far I had to participate in various religious ceremonies. I was in a catholic elementary school (Germany) and had to attend church on christian holydays. I voluntarily attended church when friends and relatives held their communion (they did it for the monetary gifts, religion was not important). I also went to church on funerals.

    I hated every second of it, especially the ridiculous rituals. They get up, sit down, get up, sing, pray, get on their knees, then pray again, then sit down, eat strange stuff, drink wine, put “holy” water on their forehead and sometimes walk around in circles. The pastors told boring ass stories from “The Book” and occasionally swung around that weird smoking thing. Well, I never did anything more than getting up and sitting down again. Here in Germany the whole church thing is very liberal, nobody is forced to do something they don’t want to do. Lucky me, never had to sing…except on christmas. To hell with my dignity, when they tell you have to sing a song or say a poem to get your presents you do it.

    However, I hated the rituals, not the buildings. Some of them are really beautiful and worth a visit. Especially the St. Peter’s Basilica, every inch of it is filled with amazing art. As an atheist I would love it if church buildings were available for non-theistic events.

    Concerning religious buildings in Europe, countless lives were lost building these structures. Many people were forced to work under harsh conditions and minimal pay, all for the ego of some popmous religious leaders. And now? These buildings are only available to religious organizations, the same institution that commited many horrible deeds in the past. They benefit from the(ir) crimes of the past through tourism, government funds, donations, etc.

    Our ancestors built these buildings, it should be common property, not something exclusive for the church. Where they can impose their rules. Rules such as no headpieces, no blasphemy or “appropriate” clothing. Regarding religious symbols, I think they should stay. Nobody will be drawn to the “dark side” by seeing a cross, naked jesus or naked babies with wings (the dream of every pastor, infant home delivery). These symbols are part of history, leave them.

    PS: It would be awesome to have a wild party in a beautiful basilica. For example, you could dress up Jesus and take pictures with him. The organizers could make girls in sexy-nun outfits distribute wine for the guests. There are so much ungodly and fun things you could do.

  • Microbiologychick

    My cousin;s graduation was supposed to be held on the football field, but storms were forecasted. In that small town, the largest building was a megachurch, and even then, each student got only a few tickets for family members to be admitted.

    There was a prayer, but that was scheduled anyway. I don’t think this particular graduation location was a violation due to the circumstances.

  • Neon Genesis

    When I was in middle school, they had our graduation at a local Methodist church. At the time, I didn’t think anything about it since I was a Christian then. We also had the practice for my high school graduation there but the official graduation ceremony took place in another secular building downtown. I think it’s best to keep these school ceremonies as neutral to religion as possible. There’s no point in having a graduation at a church if you have other options available and having it as a church is just opening the floodgates to a lot of headaches and legal conflicts that could be avoided by just not having it there.

  • Guy Allen

    Every secular event held in a religious building is one step closer to making all of the buildings simply buildings, and future homes to museums or night clubs.

  • JSug

    I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for a religious building to be the most suitable venue for large ceremonies. My public high-school graduation took place in the gym of a local Catholic college because it was the only building in town large enough to hold everyone and their families (we were limited to 4 guests, I think) without violating fire codes. And this was in Olympia, WA. Not exactly a rural community. Outdoors ceremonies here are generally out of the question, due to the fact that graduation is during the tail end of our rainy season.

    But the ceremony was completely secular, and I think that’s more important than where it takes place.

  • I have to tell you, if my child’s graduation were held in any church that actively opposes Gay marriage we (including my child) wouldn’t go. I’d make it up to them some other way.
    And I would raise bloody Hell about it too (nothing violent, just a lot of letters and phonecalls).

  • Luther

    One other factor I have not seen mentioned yet is that churches are tax exempt. Holding a ceremony in a church results in the possibility of a legitimate business losing revenue and competing with one hand tied behind its back. (Which just happens to apparently be the case in Enfield). It is also the government sending money to a church. It could be a backdoor to bail out a church and is definitely supporting a religion.

    Part of this reasoning also applies to any tax exempt entity renting facilities or providing services. A tricky issue. On the other hand, I don’t see it applying when a town rents facilities to a church at a fair rate, since then all the “profit” goes to the town, presumably reducing taxes.

  • aerie66

    I’d prefer a church locale as opposed to the football stadium being turned into a church worship service. It’s ever so the norm here in the rural south where my daughter will grad next wk. It will no doubt be full of scripture, prayer, & no doubt a baptist hymn snuck in for good measure. Can’t effing wait. /s Arrrgh!

    Mine, however was held at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, NC (any ACC fans remember?). I don’t recall anything religious about it except that it was hot as christian hell in that place.

  • Bear

    FYI dogg, when the bible ever says “The Law” it means the Ten Commandments, not the law of a certain country. So when Jesus was talking about people of the law he was really talking about Pharisees who were super hypocritical back in the day.

    In other words, God’s got nothing against Lawyers.

  • Luther

    The latest from Connecticut, it seems the partnership is breaking down:

    The Family Institute Blog:

    Twenty-one years ago today a young man stood athwart a column of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square for the sake of freedom. Last night, Enfield’s Board of Education decided it could not even face down a lawsuit for freedom’s sake…

    The BOE took a cowardly position last night. They betrayed the trust that was placed in them to act according to the commitment they had made. They betrayed their commitment…

    FIC has exposed this situation for what it is. Anti-family forces have been embarrassed by this exposure. They are enraged at FIC for being its source and they are lashing out.

    Huh…how is standing up for the Constitution anti-family?

    They compare this to Tiananmen Square:

    Twenty-one years ago today a young man stood athwart a column of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square for the sake of freedom. Last night, Enfield’s Board of Education decided it could not even face down a lawsuit for freedom’s sake.

    It is the brave five plaintiffs that are a lot closer to that lone individual in China. And I certainly don’t blame them for not disclosing their names. The is the state where legislators were threatened for filing a bill to let parishioners have access to the books of their Catholic church.

  • Julia

    My highschool graduation was in a church and it was fine. Most if not all highschools in the district have their ceremonies in a church. There was absolutely no religious content in the ceremony and the church wasn’t decorated very religiously (that I recall). However, if there had been religious content in the ceremony it would have been made doubly worse in that location.

    Daniel: I’ve actually been to a rave in a church about 10 years ago. It was hilariously awesome. I’m pretty sure they never, ever rented to anyone throwing a ‘dry all night dance party’ again.

  • Rosanna

    If the school is, like in this case, a school affiliated with a religion, then I don’t think there is ANY violation of the law.

    If the school is a State-run one, then it’s a different case.

  • coral

    Like some previous commentors, my high school graduation was held in a church building. It wasn’t particularly beautiful; it was more like a megachurch. It bothered me, but being in a church always gives me a weird itchy feeling. The invocation bothered me more, but I live in TN among a strong Christian majority, so I pretty much expected it. I wish it could have been held at a different, more secular venue, though I’m not sure the ceremony would have been any different if it had been.

  • Dan W

    This is an interesting thing to think about. My high school graduation was held in a nearby building which frequently hosts sporting events, marching band competitions, and other public events. My high school has been having graduation ceremonies there for several years, and other high schools in the area also have their graduation ceremonies there.

    I personally think this sort of situation, of whether to hold a graduation ceremony in a church/house of worship should be decided on a case-by-case basis. If there are any affordable secular locations available, a public school should choose those over churches for their graduation ceremony. However, if a church is the only place available, they should take it, and use it in a secular manner.

    One final thought regarding this issue: I generally feel uncomfortable spending time in churches, as I’m an atheist surrounded by god-believers in those places. However, I’d be able to tolerate a graduation ceremony at a church, as long as it was done without forcing religion on students.

  • Rachel

    I’m sorry, did I miss something? Isn’t the university in question a Catholic university? Do they not, therefore, have the right to conduct ceremonies and celebrations in a “catholic way”? I grew up Catholic, and I don’t think it’s possible to disagree with the church much more than I do, but if you’re going to a Catholic school you have to play to some extent by catholic rules, or you can go somewhere else.

  • Kim A. Miller

    Among the fastest growing religions in the US are pagan religions, most of whom worship nature. Their symbols are all natural elements.

    So could I file suit to stop an outdoor graduation ritual because I was raised by pagans and the outdoors scares me?

    Making inanimate objects like buildings capable of evangelistic coercion is absurd.

  • Luther


    “So could I file suit to stop an outdoor graduation ritual because I was raised by pagans and the outdoors scares me?”

    Of course. Anyone can sue for anything.

    But unlike the CT suit, you would be unlikely to win. The CT suit is not against having a graduation in a building just because churches use buildings.

    “Making inanimate objects like buildings capable of evangelistic coercion is absurd.”

    Its not any building, its a church with stained glass etc. How about a graduation at a Holocaust death camp in Germany? I suspect that would not feel welcoming to Jewish German high school students and their relatives.

    For outdoors, how about a U.S. graduation at a known KKK rally point, near trees where blacks were lynched?

    Also the back story was that in this particular case it seems that the Church was chosen for the purpose of making a statement or at least to attract the court case.

  • Kim A. Miller

    The back story is wrong and biased. It also should not matter. The church is part of the community. People going to the church buy lunch and gas on the way to and from the church. The community should be able to take advantage of the building for any event it chooses to hold there. Unless some actual human being tried to force religion on people, there should not be an establishment case.

    The founders wrote the establishment clause because they were concerned with actual coercion, not symbolism, not buildings.

    This kind of stuff makes us look like we believe in voodoo, not reason.

    The magic building is ready to coerce your children? Poppycock. It’s just bricks and mortar and great air conditioning and built in video facilities and lots of parking.

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