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FFRF urges Minn. school district to move graduation from church after student petition

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging Eastern Carver County Schools to hear the students and discontinue using Grace Church for graduation ceremonies. FFRF is asking the district to select a more appropriate, secular venue for graduation ceremonies in order to respect the First Amendment rights of students and families.

A recent petition from Chaska High sophomore Eli Frost has gathered more than 600 signatures asking the school district to respect the separation of state and church by moving future graduation ceremonies from Grace Church in Eden Prairie to a more secular venue. “As a community of students and parents who represent a wide variety of marginalized identities, we must change this venue,” the petition explains.

The school district has reportedly used this venue for over a decade. Frost objects to the church’s dogmatic views on divorce and anti-LGBTQ views expressed by church leaders, among other concerns. In light of the petition, Grace Church issued a statement saying that it does not discriminate against anyone, despite espousing fundamentalist biblical teachings on gender, marriage and divorce.

In backing up the students’ petition, FFRF is requesting the district cease holding graduation ceremonies at Grace Church and instead select a secular facility to respect the diversity and constitutional rights of the students and family.

“While the district states that Grace Church is able to meet the district’s needs for the graduation ceremonies, there appear to be secular options available that other districts have contracted with, including the Minneapolis Convention Center,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence writes. “Additionally, it apparently costs the district close to $28,000 to host the graduation ceremonies at Grace Church, which suggests that the location is not being used for financial reasons and the district can likely afford to explore secular venues.”

Public school students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools, including when participating in graduation ceremonies. It is unconstitutional for a public high school to compel or coerce its graduating students, their parents, teachers and other members of their families or friends, to enter a house of worship in order to participate in or attend a graduation ceremony that is the culmination of 13 years of secular education. Moreover, this practice affiliates the district with the Christian religion and specifically the evangelical views espoused by Grace Church.

High school graduations are viewed as special, once-in-a-lifetime moments for graduating students and their families. Students should not be expected to choose between being forced to graduate in a church or to forgo this momentous occasion. As students and community members have pointed out, the district should strive to host graduation in a venue that is welcoming and inclusive for students and all attendees. This is especially true in light of the fact that nearly half of Generation Z is nonreligious and about two in ten non-Christians are members of the LGBTQ community, including 19 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

The national state/church watchdog is reminding the district that if it continues to hold ceremonies at Grace Church, any parent or student whose rights were violated could pursue legal claims.

FFRF heartily seconds the student petition’s observation that “In today’s political climate, it’s more important than ever that we allow students to celebrate their accomplishments in a place that accepts everyone for who they are.”

Says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor: “We’re impressed to see such dedicated activism from a young freethinker and the many students who had the moxie to sign this petition. We’re currently looking for Mr. Frost to offer him a scholarship opportunity.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 900 members in Minnesota. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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