FFRF blocks Pennsylvania high school from planning/hosting baccalaureate

FFRF ended a serious state/church violation at Cedar Cliff High School (Camp Hill, Pa.) involving staff planning and hosting a religious baccalaureate service. On June 3, 2010, the school hosted the baccalaureate service under the direction of two teachers. The service included an invocation, religious message and benediction by Pastor Jeff Davidson and a performance of the religious “Anthem Dedication” by student members of the Chamber Singers. Several days later, Red Land High School (in the same school district) held a similar baccalaureate service in which students sang “A Closing Prayer” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” Cedar Cliff scheduled and transported students to an official baccalaureate practice after senior exams on June 3. Both services contained the district seal and both were held on district property.

Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney for FFRF, sent a stern letter July 1, 2010, to Superintendent Jamry Small: “As an inherently religious event, a baccalaureate service may not be held or financially supported by a public school. . . . School sponsorship, or even the appearance of sponsorship, of baccalaureate services is unconstitutional and any endorsement, participation, planning or promotion of the services must cease immediately.

“End-of-the-year celebrations mean a lot not only to Christian students but also to students practicing non-Christian religions and the 15% of your student population who are nonreligious,” she added. “A secular, school-sponsored awards night may benefit from full school endorsement and has the added advantage of being entirely inclusive of students and families from all types of religious or nonreligious backgrounds.”

While the district has not officially responded to FFRF’s concerns, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported April 6, 2011, that “Cedar Cliff High School no longer will host a baccalaureate service before graduation. According to a notice sent to parents and students, the West Shore School District received a complaint last summer that the program could cross constitutional boundaries separating church and state. . . . The note says most schools in Pennsylvania stopped hosting the service years ago because of constitutional questions regarding the separation of church and state, and ‘we are now doing similarly.’ ” — Bonnie Gutsch

Freedom From Religion Foundation