Cherokee County's high school graduations will continue to be held at a local mega-church, the school board determined with a unanimous vote on Thursday night.
The district has used First Baptist Church of Woodstock since 2005, but that venue has been challenged by a Washington-based organization on grounds that it violates the legal boundary between church and state. The group has hinted it may sue Cherokee if ceremonies are not relocated to non-religious sites.
Board members decided to take the legal risk, feeling confident in their opinion that the church venue was the best size and value in the county.
"Personally, I feel it was the right thing to do, to stand up for what we believe in and pursue what's best for the students," said Robert Rechsteiner, the newly elected board chairman.
Rechsteiner said a few law firms had contacted the district to offer free legal services, which made board members feel comfortable they would not be using tax dollars to fight a potential lawsuit.
It was clear early in the meeting that several members of the packed crowd supported using the church.
During the Pledge of Allegiance, audience members raised their voice to punctuate the words “under God.” More than a dozen students and parents went before the board in support of the location. No one spoke publicly against the location. Police estimated more than 200 people attended the meeting.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization that asked Cherokee to move the ceremony, claims church ceremonies expose students to religious imagery such as prominent crosses, pictures of Jesus and religious literature, and send a message that the district endorses the church and favors Christianity.
Barry Lynn, the group's executive director, could not be reached for comment immediately after the decision.
Local rabbi Jeffery Feinstein, who spoke against using the venue last month, said he was not surprised by the outcome of the vote. Still, he doesn't believe legal action should be the next step. "I do not want to see the AU come in here and stir the pot; it will just make diversity relations worse," he said, referring to the Washington-based opposition group. "It will polarize people."
Supporters said it makes sense to use the church for graduation. The 5,000-seat venue is large enough to allow graduates to invite as many guests as they want. And the $2,000 fee is more reasonable than the $40,000 it would cost to use venues of a similar size.
Attorneys for the district said they looked for other venues that would hold thousands of people, including the Verizon Amphitheatre and the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Both wanted more than $8,000 per school.
Woodstock senior Brian Hogue, who said he's already ordered 50 invitations with the church's name, was overjoyed by the board's decision.
"We feel like the county actually listened to us," he said. "This is what we've been wanting and we will fight for it."
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