FFRF halts public school graduation practice in church

The Freedom From Religion Foundation made a Pennsylvania public school discontinue graduation practice inside a church.

Columbia High School in Columbia, Pa., last year required its students to receive their graduation caps and gowns, and ceremony information, within a church.

The use of churches for public school programming is unconstitutional, since it is a fundamental part of First Amendment jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, or appear to endorse, religion, FFRF contends. School districts that have used churches for school functions have had the practice struck down by courts.

“A school’s use of a church for school functions is problematic because it sends a message of approval of the church to impressionable students,” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote in a letter last July to Carol Powell, then-superintendent of the Columbia Borough School District. “This practice forces students, who may be of varying faiths or no faith at all, to enter a Christian house of worship to obtain important information about graduation.”

On receiving no reply, Ziegler followed up with two more letters in November and last month. Finally, FFRF got a response a few weeks ago from Acting Superintendent Ken Klawitter, who took over in December. Klawitter told the organization that he first became aware of the issue through its February letter and acted swiftly. 

“I immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice,” he wrote. “In the future, caps and gowns, as well as important graduation information, will be distributed in a secular setting.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased at Klawitter’s prompt decision-making.

“School officials should realize that churches are not neutral spaces,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are plenty of secular places available for hosting school-related activities.”

FFRF is a national organization with 23,000 members, including more than 700 in Pennsylvania.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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