Cherokee delays decision on grad ceremony at church

Facing national opposition and a potential lawsuit, the Cherokee County Board of Education on Thursday night tabled a decision on whether more graduation ceremonies could be held in a church.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington said it received a complaint from a resident over the school system's use of the Woodstock First Baptist Church sanctuary for graduation ceremonies. The school system has held the events at the mega-church facility since 2005.

Holding the ceremonies in the sanctuary violates the constitutional rights of those who might not be Christian, a group spokesman said.

Board member Stephen Bentley pointed out that three new members will be seated in January on the seven-person board, and that group should render the decision. The motion passed unanimously, but there was spirited discussion among the audience members.

"There are so many people who would not be comfortable standing under a cross to graduate from school," said Rabbi Jeff Feinstein of Acworth.

He said the board should be cognizant of the minority of students who might be Christian rather recognizing the majority.

"A decision that discriminates against even one person is not the correct decision," Feinstein said.

Other speakers supported holding the graduations in the church, pointing out the cost is only $2,000 for five graduation ceremonies. Board attorney Thomas Roach provided information that showed the rent for other spaces that can accommodate 5,000 or more people would cost $40,000.

Greg Mikszan from Canton said the ceremony was not about religion or discrimination; it was about reserving the best facility in the county at a reasonable price.

"We as a community should never allow outside organization intimidate us," Mikszan said to loud applause.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director f0r Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a phone interview that his organization had sued school systems in Connecticut and Wisconsin over the same issue. The group lost one case and won the other, and both cases have been appealed.

If Cherokee County moved ahead with the graduation at the church, "We would have to take that very seriously," Lynn said.

Board member Janet Read said delaying the decision until the new board members are seated was the right thing to do.

"They are the ones who will be fighting the battle or not fighting the battle going forward," said Read, who will remain on the board in January.