Cherokee fight over graduations at churches could spread across metro Atlanta

Several metro Atlanta school boards could find themselves in the same position as Cherokee County's in a church vs. state dispute over high school graduation ceremonies.

Cherokee officials say holding high school graduations in a local megachurch can cost tens of thousands of dollars less than staging the ceremonies in a secular hall with similar seating capacity. But a Washington-based organization is threatening to sue, saying that holding the ceremonies at First Baptist Church in Woodstock could violate the religious rights of those who are not Christian.

A spokeswoman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State said other metro Atlanta school boards can expect to receive letters similar to the one Cherokee got in October demanding it stop holding graduations at First Baptist.

"We don't think you can trade away any student's constitutional rights just to get a cheaper or bigger space, and they simply must find a secular alternative," said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The organization is suing two school districts, one in Connecticut and one in Wisconsin, over the same issue. The lower courts ruled against the group in one suit and for it in another. Both cases have been appealed.

DeKalb County has used Bishop Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, and Cobb County is planning to hold four graduation ceremonies in May at Turner Chapel AME Church in Marietta.

Jay Dillon, a spokesman for the Cobb County School District, said the school system has been using churches for graduation ceremonies for about 30 years, although it also uses secular venues. Dillon said religious objects and literature are temporarily removed from the church and its leaders do not play a role in the graduations.

Cherokee's school board voted Thursday to table a decision on whether to continue holding graduation ceremonies at the church so three incoming members of the seven-member board could weigh in when they take office in January.

A factor in any decision could be the expense. Thomas Roach, an attorney for the Cherokee school system, said using the church costs $2,000 a year. The price for other venues with a seating capacity similar to the 5,000 that can be held at First Baptist could be as high as $40,000, he said. Using a school gym instead would mean limiting the number of people who could attend.

Michael Geist, one of the incoming board members, said he did not know whether he wanted the burden of such a momentous decision this quickly, but here it is.

The Cherokee board's meeting room was filled Thursday, and those residents who spoke expressed strong emotional opinions about the issue.

Greg Mikszan said to loud applause that many schools use church facilities, and First Baptist is economical and adds dignity. He added that the school board should not be intimidated by an outside organization, and that families have already ordered graduation announcements with First Baptist listed.

Some in the crowd booed Rabbi Jeff Feinstein of Acworth when he tried to speak longer than the two minutes he was allotted to make the case that the graduation should be moved. He said those who are not Christian may find it offensive to walk under a large cross in the building to graduate.

Feinstein said later that he thinks most in the crowd did not understand what it is to be a minority.

"I really don't think they are being intentional in their hurt," he said. "I just think they don't understand why it hurts."

Sitting with Feinstein at the meeting were Nancy Serrand and her daughter Jessica Serrand, who chose not to attend her graduation ceremony from Sequoyah High School last year because she did not wish to graduate at First Baptist. The Serrands, who are Jewish, spoke to media after the meeting about their experience.

Friday morning, Jessica Serrand began to get e-mails about the issue.

"They say things like ‘How does it feel for being the most hated person in Cherokee County?' and ‘Thanks for ruining my graduation,' " she said.

She said she had nothing to do with the threatened suit and decided to attend Thursday's meeting after reading about it in a local newspaper.

"Ignorance and prejudice are still around," she said.

Many at the meeting were cordial with Feinstein, coming to him afterward to explain their points of view and to wish him a happy Hanukkah.

Among them were Dawn Welch, a Christian with a Jewish father who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

Welch said a church is the people, not the building. She said her Jewish family members would be glad to come to a graduation ceremony in a church.

Lynn, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the religious symbolism of a church cannot be erased or ignored. The organization has discussed the issue with Cherokee County for about a year.

"We were hoping they would have it resolved earlier," Lynn said. "We are taking this very seriously."