DeKalb moves all graduations out of churches

Unlike in years past, none of the DeKalb County high school graduation ceremonies are occurring in churches this year.

All 26 DeKalb high school commencements are in secular venues such as the Georgia World Congress Center, the Atlanta Civic Center, the Fox Theatre, or school facilities, including outdoor stadiums. A dozen schools made the move this year because of concerns about violating the separation of church and state.

District spokeswoman Lillian Govus said parents complained last year about ceremonies in religious institutions.

But now, some other parents are unhappy with the result, saying it means higher costs for less-suitable facilities.

Priscilla Davenport, president of the McNair High School PTSA, was disappointed by several features of the new venue, the Thomas B. Murphy ballroom of the Georgia World Congress Center.

Gov. Nathan Deal spoke at the event Tuesday, and Davenport and other parents complained that they could not make out everything he said because of the audio quality.

Davenport also said she couldn’t see the faces of the students because their chairs were on the floor at the front of the ballroom. When her son graduated two years ago at a commencement held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and at last year’s ceremony at Greater Travelers Rest Baptist Church, the students stood facing the audience on tiered choir stands. “So they’re stacked up and you could spot your child,” Davenport said.

Senior dues pay for the facility cost, and parents complain that higher fees leave less money for other things.

Barbara Arne, a member of the PTSA board at Lakeside High, said the cost of the Fox Theatre, the site of Wednesday’s ceremony, was about $17,000 more than the cost of Greater Travelers Rest, where her son graduated last year.

“That is money that in previous years would have been given to the school as a gift,” Arne said, noting that past donations paid for educational materials and supplies.

Davenport said McNair’s 2013 seniors didn’t get a DVD with their yearbook as their predecessors did because there was less money to go around due to the move to the World Congress Center. (A center spokeswoman said McNair was billed a $9,580 rental fee.)

Arne said the policy was established in the fall under then-Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson. Most high schools had already reserved facilities by the time Michael Thurmond was named superintendent in February.

Thurmond said he was concerned about the legality of church commencements. He said DeKalb schools can still hold ceremonies in churches, but there is one caveat: “You cannot do it in a place that displays symbols of worship.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the Cherokee County school district to move its graduation ceremonies from First Baptist Church of Woodstock, claiming students were being exposed to religious imagery such as prominent crosses, pictures of Jesus and religious literature.

Americans United indicated it would sue, but didn’t — even after the school board in 2011 shrugged off the group’s concerns and voted unanimously to continue holding commencements at First Baptist.

Barbara Jacoby, spokeswoman for the Cherokee district, said the church’s capacity, cost, safety and amenities figured into the decision.

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, said Thursday that his group has been monitoring the situation in Cherokee since 2009 and continues to do so.

“We can only file a limited number of lawsuits,” he said, explaining why the group has not brought formal action in Cherokee. “We also have limited resources.”

Americans United has filed three lawsuits since 2005 over church-based graduation ceremonies. Two suits resulted in the end of graduations in religious facilities in Florida and Connecticut, Luchenitser said. A third lawsuit is ongoing in Wisconsin, he said.

“Just because it is cheap or convenient does not mean it does not violate the constitutional rights of students with minority religious beliefs who don’t feel comfortable going to graduation in a religious environment,” he said.

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