FFRF ends school sponsored baccalaureate in South Dakota (July 17, 2014)

Freeman High School in Freeman S.D., will no longer organize or sponsor an annual baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. FFRF received a complaint that on May 14 a religious ceremony took place in which attendance was mandatory for all seniors and members of the band and chorus. Students were reportedly told that they would receive an “F” for not attending. Teachers, staff and the principal all have attended the annual event taking place at the school.

FFRF was informed that between songs a pastor preached and quoted bible verses. The pastor also led the crowd in prayer. The school promoted the event on the school calendar and website, and announced the event repeatedly over the intercom.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter on May 30, informing the superintendent that it is illegal for public schools to sponsor any type of religious practices. The school shortly after told FFRF that the practice would discontinue. FFRF’s complaint resulted in a flurry of news articles in the Freeman Courier newspaper. At a school board meeting, Board Member Laverne Diede reportedly said, “I want to continue to be able to provide baccalaureate for our students and this is a way we can do that.” Superintendent Don Hotchkiss said it was never his intention to eliminate the baccalaureate: “I do think we have to make some changes to how we do baccalaureate; I think we’re fortunate to have been able to do this for as long as we have.”

On July 23, Elliott sent a follow-up letter explaining that the district had to completely disassociate itself from the religious ceremony.

In July, the Superintendent reported that the Freeman Ministerial Association would hold future baccalaureate services. “The contents of the program will be entirely coordinated and conducted by the Ministerial Association, with no help, input, collaboration or participation from employees at the Freeman Public Schools.” He enclosed a copy of the Board motion to discontinue school affiliated baccalaureates.

The superintendent added, “I trust this information will not only be useful for you but will also allow you to have a more complete and restful nightly sleep cycle.”

The Freeman Courier editorialized in FFRF’s favor on July 24, asking readers to “Imagine if you, as a Christian, moved into a community that was primarily Muslim and the public school chose to hold a religious service as part of the graduation. Likely you’d have reservations about being there and offering prayers and following the religious tenets and traditions of Islam.”

“Our Constitution allows us to practice our religion — and not to practice the religion of someone else. That is what the separation of church and state means.” The editorial quoted cited 17th century secularist Roger Williams, noting that state/church separation “both protects the religion from state control and it protects the state from religious control.” The Freeman Courier ran a earlier editorial on July 15 applauding the resolution as a “win-win situation.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation