FFRF ends high school coordination of baccalaureate service (May 13, 2014)

George Washington High School in Charleston W. Va., will no longer aid in coordinating and financing a baccalaureate service for graduating seniors.

FFRF was contacted by a concerned student after the school sent two mailings to graduating seniors describing the service as a “worship experience.” The mailing announced a school teacher was supervising student planning and sought donations, with checks made payable to the high school. A formal invitation was also sent to students, with the envelope mailed from the school. The invitation announced the date and time of “a service representing all walks of faith.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the district a strong letter outlining why this is such an egregious violation:

“The school’s role in sending letters to seniors from the school, collecting and disbursing funds for the service, and allowing a teacher to coordinate the service, signals to a reasonable graduating senior or parent that Kanawha County Schools endorses the religious messages espoused at these services. To avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious practices, a public school should take measures to disassociate itself from the activity. This means that no public school employee can be involved in the organization, planning or coordinating of baccalaureate services. Public schools may not collect and distribute funds for the service and send mailings to students about the service.”

On May 13, the school’s attorney replied: “The school made an additional announcement last week that the baccalaureate was not a school sponsored function, attendance was voluntary and whether or not a student attended would have no effect on anything at the school. . . I believe having a member of school faculty involved and running money through the school accounts was done to assure the parents that everything would be handled properly. Nevertheless, these practices are going to stop, and the account will be closed at the end of this school year.”

The school also agreed to cease mailing baccalaureate invitations to students.

Freedom From Religion Foundation