It’s really not that hard for a public school to have a baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. The religious ceremony is legal as long as the school isn’t organizing or promoting it in any way.
Somehow, the Mona Shores Public Schools in Michigan never figured that out.
Here’s what we know happened at Mona Shores High School this year:
- They held a baccalaureate ceremony on June 1 in the school auditorium, and it doesn’t appear that a rental fee was paid.
- Sign-up sheets were available in the counseling office during school hours, suggesting that the school was helping with the ceremony.
- Teachers and staffers attended the ceremony, presumably speaking at it and using their official titles (like “Biology Teacher Mrs. Smith”).
- The school’s orchestra played at the event, another indication that this was a school-sponsored event.
- The school promoted the ceremony on its school calendar, the district newsletter, over morning video announcements — all without indicating that this was a privately-sponsored event.
Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Rebecca Markert was very direct in her June letter to District Superintendent Dave Peden:
The school’s apparent role in hosting and supporting attendance at this baccalaureate causes reasonable graduating seniors and parents to conclude that the District endorses the religious messages espoused at these services. The school orchestra may not perform at religious services. To avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious practices, a public school should take measures to disassociate itself from religious activity. This means that no public school employees can be involved in the organization, planning or coordination of the baccalaureate services. Any advertisement for the service should include information indicating it is privately sponsored and the messages espoused in the service are neither approved nor endorsed by the District.
In a response letter from Peden written a month later, he indicated that changes would be made. They’re not quite enough, in my opinion, but the district is clearly on alert that a lawsuit is imminent if it doesn’t modify what it’s doing:
You may share with the complainant that we plan to:
1. Add language disclaiming any official endorsement of advertising for the ceremony.
2. Future email invitations will come from the organization running the ceremony and not the high school.
3. Make sure the orchestra students know it is a voluntary performance if in fact they perform.
4. If a school employee is chosen to be the speaker, we will not refer to his/her title with the district, just their name.
In a story on MLive.com, reporter Lynn Moore got an even more damning admission from Peden:
Peden said the school was simply trying to “help the church out” in promoting the event to students, but acknowledged that a mass email that was sent out regarding the service “made it look like we’re endorsing it.” Forest Park Covenant Church holds the baccalaureate, Peden said.
I don’t know which student and/or parent tipped off the FFRF to what was happening, but that’s what it took to make the changes happen. School officials do this sort of thing all the time. They break the law — to benefit religious people — and they keep doing it until someone calls them out on it.
It seems strange to write this, but we need more students and parents with the courage to anonymously blow the whistle on school officials.
By the way, despite what some commenters on the MLive site are saying, what Markert did wasn’t anti-Christian in the least. It was pro-neutrality. It benefits everyone in the school. Christians can still hold their ceremony; they just won’t get to use taxpayer money in the process.