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Let the Walls Come Tumblin' Down

Maintaining a strong wall between church and state is sacred and honorable work, but carping at the Montgomery County school board for letting Montgomery Blair High School hold its graduation ceremony at a megachurch is a smallminded approach to the church-state issue.

There are real and painful breaches of the wall that protects all Americans from overbearing pressure by a religious majority. When D.C. schools pepper their commencements and other assemblies with overtly Christian prayer, as they regularly do, that's an unwarranted and unacceptable crossing of the line. When a high school in Loudoun County subjects students to a school-sponsored assembly featuring a self-professed "Christian comedian" presenting a program on sexual abstinence, that's a gross misunderstanding of the school's responsibility to avoid public endorsements of a particular religious faith or position.

But when Montgomery County contracts with Jericho City of Praise church in Landover so that students from a very large high school can all be graduated together in one room, there is no intent to foist a religious point of view on young people. There's just an intent to give everyone a seat in a room with a roof.

The school board's decision last week to let the rental of the church go ahead makes sense; Montgomery just doesn't have sufficient large halls to accommodate such large crowds, and Blair is not a wealthy school, so it cannot afford the fancier venues that some other schools pay big bucks to use.

Unfortunately, the issue is, for the moment, moot, as Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast decided yesterday to cough up the money so Blair seniors may be graduated at the University of Maryland's sports arena rather than at the church. That means this particular situation can't be used as a test case for the lawsuit that would inevitably have been filed had the school stuck with its contract for Jericho church.

This newspaper's editorial page took a hard line on the use of the church, arguing that convenience was trumping principle here, and that the mere presence of a banner reading "Jesus Is The Lord!" puts undue pressure on children of non-Christian backgrounds. Oy! First of all, the church makes a real effort to neutralize the room for graduation ceremonies, removing all movable religious icons. Sure, some of the fixtures of the room cannot be moved and are indeed Christian. So what? In this country, experiencing and understanding the faiths and beliefs of others should be a central tenet of education. Far from cleansing our schools of any religious references, we should--especially now--be stepping up efforts to teach kids about the history and beliefs of all of the world's major religions.

High school students should be required to take a comparative religion course; the utility of such an introduction in this world is self-evident. And no one should be offended by the opportunity to visit the house of worship of someone else's faith.

But this controversy is not about studying religion or stuffing religion down the throats of those who have no interest in it. This is simply a real estate question, a matter of where to hold a large-scale event. Putting the graduation ceremony in a church--and especially in one that has made an effort to tone down its religious trappings--is no different from holding the event in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall or a Knights of Columbus facility or even the primary hall used in this region for big commencements, the downtown D.C. building owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (Constitution Hall). Some folks out there might not like the idea of hanging out in a building that's run by people who fight wars, or a Catholic fraternity, or a group that once banned black artists from the very stage that students now cross to pick up their diplomas.

Too bad. The more we cross into one another's territory, the better off we'll all be.

By Marc Fisher |  January 31, 2007; 7:59 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

No, Marc, you are wrong on this. It was a boneheaded move by the school board to even consider this. Why subject muslim, jewish, buddhist, or - heavens, dare I say - atheist students, parents, teachers, and guests to having the backdrop to the photos of their photos being a huge cross and declaration that *Jesus is Lord*? The superintendent made the right decision. What you and everyone else should be complaining about is why institutions like UMD or private venues like the Verizon center don't offer drastic discounts or even donate the use of their spaces for graduation services. It seems that some civic action like that would be a great gesture to the community and the students.

Posted by: corbett | January 31, 2007 9:02 AM

Mr. Fisher asks us to have a little common sense when a large high school commencement tries to use a religious venue because of the lack of available amenities for such an event. It could also be argued that since this is a commencement of high school seniors who are leaving the secular school system, there really isn't any imposition of sectarian influence on a minors by the state involved in this instance.

In a perfect world, Mr. Fisher's appeal for common sense would be considered rational. Unfortunately, we live in a country that has been taken over by irrational fundamental dominionists who are not prone to common sense and thus the fight against their influence in our society results in less use of common sense by the rest of us. Of course, I am speaking of the always present "slippery slope" argument.

If religion had not been hi-jacked by the forces of ultra-conservatives, common sense could be employed more in rational decision-making.

Posted by: Peter Nuhn | January 31, 2007 9:09 AM

I wonder if the public reaction to this situation would have been different if Blair had decided to hold its graduation in a very large mosque...

Posted by: Julia | January 31, 2007 9:14 AM

Marc, you make a sound argument for the exercise of reasonable judgment. Though, as the comments thus far suggest, reasonableness is all too rare when it comes to absolute separationists.

Folks, I know this may come as a shock, but not every instance where religion "touches" a secular institution amounts to establishment of religion.

Dial back your offend-me buttons just a bit, and try to get along. It's not that hard, really.

Posted by: todd | January 31, 2007 9:33 AM

I'm glad Weast stepped in to do what he did -- not because of the church vs. state angle, but simply because College Park is easier for the Blair community (Silver Spring, Takoma Park) to reach than Landover. In fact, I don't see why the county can't arrange some sort of package deal with the university to hold most of its down-county, large-school commencements at the Comcast Center, which I believe is solely an athletic facility (unlike Cole Field House, where my high school, Richard Montgomery, had its commencement in 1973, there are no classrooms in Comcast). June is also the time of year when little, if anything, is going on with university athletics, and Comcast isn't yet being used for boys' and girls' basketball camps.

Posted by: Vincent | January 31, 2007 10:09 AM

This whole controversy is ridiculous. Renting a church for a graduation doesn't seem to me like a big deal. As long as the ceremony itself doesn't involve proseteylization I don't see the big deal.

Posted by: NW DC | January 31, 2007 10:18 AM

If the "someone may be offended" crowd would take a look at the Constitution of the United States they might find a bit less support for thier view than they profess. The term "separation of church and state" was penned in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a friend when discussing why a soveriegn should not interfere with a body of religion. those words have been spun on their heels by a Supreme Court which looked well outside the boundries of the document they pledged to assess. To believe that having a student function in a large church building is equal to "the establishment" of a religion is not based in fact, only intellect in need of a hard look at the papers generated by the founding fathers of our country.

Posted by: T | January 31, 2007 10:22 AM

Doesn't the county own a stake in (or the whole thing) of that new fancy Strathmore Hall? How many people does that hold? Couldn't the schools use that?

That being said, those in Loco MoCo who are upset about the possibility of using a church for a graduation should really, really get over it.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | January 31, 2007 10:25 AM

I'm wish my tax dollars that paid for Strathmore could have made their hall available for graduations.

Posted by: Jacknut | January 31, 2007 10:40 AM

Marc - I have to disagree with you for one reason. There is zero chance that a graduation ceremony of this type would ever occur in a Muslim, or Jewish space. Period. The christian population would howl.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 10:44 AM

Comcast Center already hosts many of the PG county graduations, so, in terms of scheduling, I dont know that it can accommodate more schools.

Strathmore Hall holds just under 2000 people, which is much less than the 10,000 for the Jericho facility and ~18K at the comcast center.

Apparently there was going to be no charge for the church of jericho...Why is that? They were being nice? The schools/govt cant pay a church money?

Posted by: pete | January 31, 2007 10:47 AM

Marc and those who see no problem in holding the graduation in a church just don't get it.

Sure, the problem is exacerbated by the fundamentalist strain that is manifesting itself so strongly in the US today, but it is still a problem. As it turns out, my kids went to a Jewish School through H.S. and graduation was held in a synagogue. The atmospherics were more than a little important.

Yes, my views may be somewhat skewed by being forced to say "The Lord's Prayer" every day at the start of school and the grand Christmas pageants every year, but it's still problematic to hold a public school (that is my dollars and yours) in a facility that is part of a religion that believes that you and your co-religionists must be converted. All of this under a large banner promoting Jesus.

By the Way, Blair has a wonderful, large football stadium that can easily hold whatever crowd comes to the ceremony. My H.S. graduation was outdoors. Both of my children graduated from college outdoors. Admittedly, my college graduation was on February 22, but what am I missing, here?

Posted by: mikes | January 31, 2007 11:02 AM

Weast is a hypocrite. If he's going to take this hard line, why does he allow churches to use MoCo public schools for religious services? Probably because they rent the facilities / pay the school system.

Posted by: Germantown, MD | January 31, 2007 11:03 AM

Sorry, blew the last sentence. Should read:

Admittedly, my college graduation was indoors, but it was on February 22. What am I missing here?

Posted by: mikes | January 31, 2007 11:04 AM

What's up with having to put a roof over graudations? Outdoor events got us by for decades, but what now? We've turned our high school seniors so high-maintenance that they can't sit in the humid DC air in a tissue paper gown? No wonder they whine so much about the comforts of home when they get to college or have to put a roof over their own heads.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | January 31, 2007 11:20 AM

Marc Fisher's piece eloquently makes the points that the Blair PTSA had been making to deaf ears at MCPS for many months, until the new BOE took our concerns seriously. I'm ecstatic that we finally have an adequate venue, and more importantly, that MCPS has committed to providing adequate venues to all the MC high schools from here on in. But the points of principle made here (as well as the issue of costs) are still important to bear in mind.

Posted by: Miriam Szapiro | January 31, 2007 11:32 AM

The Comcast solution , with a group discount for all MCPS schools who wish to use the facility , seems to be the BEST solution. The church location was an acceptable solution, but Comcast is better.Now , will we next hear from parents who are graduates of Duke, UNC ,etc who will be offended by being forced to look at the banners, icons, etc in Terrapin Temple?

Posted by: jmsbh | January 31, 2007 11:40 AM

I don't see what all the hand ringing is about: if there are tapestries or displays that school officials feel would "offend" people of faiths other than that of the landlord simply ask that they be covered during the negotiations for renting the space. Since very few private landlords (or public entities for that matter) have halls large enough for graduation ceremonies it's not that unusual to have to rent space from a church. I do disagree with the poster who attributed this to religious discrimination--if a synagogue or mosque had a sanctuary of sufficient size, and it was appropriately laid out, I'll bet it would find use.

Frankly from my perspective as a regular church goer, I don't find graduations to be an appropriate use of space for a church sanctuary; and this comes from a man whose oldest child graduated from high school at the Basilica.

Lastly, the Establishment Clause forbids the establishment of a State church and the use of public funds for support of the church and/or its clergy as the Church of England was supported by George III's government at the time of the Revolution. It is quite a stretch to link that to renting a hall for a public school graduation. As a famous Senator from Connecticut (a Democrat too) said, "Freedom of Religion does not mean freedom from religion".

Posted by: 20th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW | January 31, 2007 11:40 AM

It's a bit silly that some people think just by setting foot in a church building they'll somehow be forced under the spell of religion. Churches are used all the time for non-church related and secular activities. In my church on Capitol Hill we have anything from AA meetings to Folger lectures - they need space, and we can provide it for less money than commercial facilities. That's all there is to it - no sinister agenda, no attempt to convert anyone, and certainly no attack on the Constitution.

Posted by: cpwdc | January 31, 2007 11:53 AM

Personally, my high school gradualtion was at the old Cap Centre, before it got the Nitro-Glycerin treatment, but if it had bene at a Church I would have been more than a little preturbed as a Jewish student. A Church just isn't the right kind of place for an event like this. There's no way to escape, for lack of a better word, the religious iconography of the building, and that just isn't a proper setting for a secular high school graduation eremony.

Posted by: EricS | January 31, 2007 11:55 AM

I am the parent of two MCPS children. I am proud to send my children to public schools, to expose them to many cultures and points of view. The one thing I do not want from my public schools is the endorsement of religion.

I am familiar with the Jericho City of Praise Church. In letters larger than my house, it proclaims "Jesus Is Lord." That is a perfectly fine expression for a church. It is absolutely an inappropriate venue for a public school graduation. We live in a pluralistic society. The message those words send to non-Christians is that they do not belong. That is not the feeling that should be created for a public school graduation.

Posted by: David from Bethesda | January 31, 2007 12:00 PM

EricS, do you think that I want to see a mennorah at Christmas time? No, I don't, but I TOLLERATE it. If people would be a little more tollerant, the children might learn not to hate. Yes, I said LEARN. They learn hate from somewhere and that somewhere is adults.

Posted by: Christian | January 31, 2007 12:02 PM

Don't forget the Tree Worshippers - remove all the wood from Comcast so they won't be offended either.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 12:05 PM

I agree with the comment that this would never, ever occur in a mosque (less sure about a temple). Parents would complain that their students were being exposed to beliefs that they did not believe in. But if it is held in a Protestant church, it is okay? Only argument in favor of using the church is that it gets lots of tax exemptions so tax payers would at least be getting something out of those.

Posted by: Steve | January 31, 2007 12:06 PM

Marc, Thanks for keeping the dialogue going for a more sane approach to life here on this shrinking planet. The irony is that our population is increasing, our proximity decreasing, but the concept of 'live and let live' is being derailed and making life darn near more problematic and costly than it needs to be.

I agree with earlier comments of Peter Nuhn "If religion had not been hi-jacked by the forces of ultra-conservatives, common sense could be employed more in rational decision-making." Those of us with a more healthy grip on what constitutes 'infringing the rights of others' yearn for a turning point in the conduct of public decisions in this regard. But no one wants to 'bell the cat'.

Posted by: Susan Remmert | January 31, 2007 12:15 PM

I can understand that a non-Christian might be uncomfortable in a church service, and as a Christian that would be the last thing I would want anyone to feel in a place of worship.

But why is simply being in church building so offensive to some? Marc is right in that once you start making a list of all the potentially offensive places you might be exposed to, there'll soon be nothing left of that very same pluralistic society that some secularists think they defend.

Posted by: cpwdc | January 31, 2007 12:27 PM

Marc, aren't you Jewish? When you daughter graduates, aren't you afriad that if her graduation party is held in a church, she may get Mad Jesus disease or something?

Posted by: Careful, it will rub off! | January 31, 2007 12:30 PM

Marc, I love it when someone brings reason into the argument. The extremists on both sides get all in a tizzy and spin around like tops.

I have to wonder though. Do all these people who think sitting in a church that removed as much religious iconography as possible for a couple of hours for a secular graduation ceremony also get offended driving down the street and seeing the crosses on the sides of churches? Is the mere existence of religion so offensive that to even acknowledge it exists intolerable? Does the crucifix on the side of some mega-church make their eyes bleed? Does the Star of David outside a synagogue cause heart palpitations? They must be positively apoplectic outside a mosque.

The religion isn't in the building or the symbology. It's in the hearts of the people. A building is just a building. Putting "Jesus is Lord" on the walls does not give the building hypnotic powers. The people are the church. You won't walk out of the building brain washed. You won't even walk out offended unless you choose to be.

Here's what it boils down to: Churches=big and cheap. Comcast, etc.=big and expensive. As strained as school districts claim their budgets to be, they'd darn well better be saving money and *gasp* spending it on education.

If you can't set aside your prejudices for two hours for the benefit of the students who might actually get new text books or better paid teachers out of the deal, you're equally as bad as the extremists who try to foist religion upon people. It's intolerance on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Posted by: single and denied | January 31, 2007 12:37 PM

Couple of quick points: First, the first amendment was based on Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and was boiled down for the first amendment, that is the source of the separation of church and state, as someone put it, "in a letter to a friend." Second, how can Marc claim that there was "no intent to foist a religious point of view on young people," while a banner too large to remove for the graduation ceremony proclaims, "Jesus is Lord"? It would seem to me that is exactly what's happening; and in order to rectify that Montgomery Public Schools did the right thing. Finally, it is very different holding this ceremony in a church, rather then a VFW hall (and actually Marc, they fought wars, as veterans they don't fight them anymore) or Constitution Hall (especially considering DAR has admitted that they were wrong in the past and continues to strive for multiculturalism). K of C is a different story, they are a religious institution, that's great for the Boy Scouts (who kick out gay members) or AA meetings, where the second step is to admit that there is a power above them that they will restore their sanity. If even one member of Montgomery Blair High School would have felt their religion attacked by holding their last public school activity in a church, that is one too many.

Posted by: dbrue | January 31, 2007 12:47 PM

MCPS and the BOE need to get the state to waive the rental fee at the University which is $10,000. The actual costs to run the facility is then about $15,000. That's a start. More important, MC Department of Business and Economics is currently conducting a feasbility study to build a venue in Montgomery County. This has been promoted by the owners of the Maryland Nighthawks basketball team who wants to build a facility in our county. The BOE and MCPS need to be on the ground floor of this project to insure that is will be large enough and designed to accommodate graduations. Strathmore seats 1,976--way too small for the majority of county high schools. They really missed an opportunity when Strathmore was built. They need to pay attention to this new venue!

Posted by: LongTermSolution | January 31, 2007 12:58 PM


Why this post? Why aren't you blogging about Abe Pollin's attempt to raid the city treasury for $50 million to fix up his pleasure palace and make more money for...himself?

Pollin's always enjoyed good press as one of the good guys, but the idea that the city should pay for improvements (better luxury boxes for corporate clients) just seemed to slide right past you. What if Daniel Snyder'd made a proposal like this?

Posted by: $50 Million | January 31, 2007 1:18 PM

Marc and others have completely missed the point.

Other PRIVATE groups (Boy Scouts, AA, whatever) are welcome to use whichever facilities they want.

Religious groups are welcome to use public facilities too, whether holding services in a school on the weekend or a picnic in the park. They may bring in religious symbols for the event, but they are not permanent fixtures of the facility. In fact, the same "separation of church and state" that some complain about here also ensures that religious groups are treated just like any secular organization in this regard.

Neither of these constitutes a government endorsement of religion or perception thereof.

The use of a RELIGIOUS facility for a GOVERNMENT (i.e., PUBLIC) function is different. The courts are very clear on this.

Posted by: nashpaul | January 31, 2007 1:22 PM

I think "single and denied" (quotes are to keep name together) has the right take on this.

Here's the key comment: If you can't set aside your prejudices for two hours for the benefit of the students who might actually get new text books or better paid teachers out of the deal, you're equally as bad as the extremists who try to foist religion upon people. It's intolerance on the opposite end of the spectrum.

dbrue, on the other hand, seems to have an odd idea about what it means to live in a pluralistic democracy.

Key comment: If even one member of Montgomery Blair High School would have felt their religion attacked by holding their last public school activity in a church, that is one too many.

I can't imagine why in the world would anyone feel that their religion is being attacked by simply being in a building that belongs to people of another faith for a brief period and for a purpose that has nothing to do with religion.

Finally, I endorse Marc's observation re the importance of learning about and coming to appreciate--or, at least, tolerate--the religious beliefs and customs of other people.

My heritage is white-bread, mainstream Protestanism, and I have always found it interesting and informative to attend religious services in houses of worship other than the tradtion in which I grew up. Who knew, for instance, that it's not customary for people to send flowers to Jewish funerals? What a pleasure and source of comfort it was to attend a shiva service w/ the family of a Jewish friend who had died.

As a child, I was fascinated by Catholicism because my Catholic schoolmates had those cool medals that they wore around their necks and marks on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday; because their church had more stained glass windows than ours, not to mention the basin of holy water than people dipped their hands in before genuflecting; and velvet-covered kneelers. Nuns' habits were also a source of fascination, and I came to think of Catholic nuns as kind, loving people because of the care my sister received in a Catholic hospital.

Of course, none of these experiences had anything to do with religious belief, but they did give me a few clues about how other people do things, which was all to the good for me, and I think it would be for other people as well.

Really, people, can't we all just get along?

Posted by: THS | January 31, 2007 1:23 PM

Along similar lines to another earlier poster, it never ceases to amaze me how the hypervigilant, so-called forces of "tolerance" and "diversity" actually end up creating far more discord than existed before. Multiculturalism increasingly means not a (small-l) liberal, free society in which peoples of different backgrounds and cultures respect and understand one another, but instead a place where common sense and a national identity and culture have been banished, to be replaced by cultural balkanization, stridency, dysfunction, and growing illeberalism.

Posted by: Claudius | January 31, 2007 1:24 PM

My public high school graduation was held in South Florida's Dania Jai Alai, a large gambling establishment south of Ft. Lauderdale. One of the teachers, a veteran of many graduations there, brought air freshener to cover the smell of stale beer. The students gathered for the processional in two places: the girls in front of the bar, the boys in front of the betting windows. It affected me deeply, and today I drink a twelve-pack a day and spend my welfare checks on lotto.

Posted by: Saalfeld | January 31, 2007 1:25 PM

dbrue, let me educate you on a simple well documented point. In 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of clergy called the Danbury Baptist Association in reply to their letter to him in Oct 1802. He states, in part, "the legislature should make no law respecting the establishment of religon or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state". This letter was written 16 years after the passage of the VA Statute for Religious Freedom. The phrase "establishment of religon" is now part of the US Constitution, not the other narrative. Hence, if having a graduation in the Landover Church building equates to the establishment of religon, we have taken a mighty long leap from the proses framed by Jefferson. Moreover, if the test to cancel a graduation is "one person" may be offended, I can't think of many venues which will pass that test for numerious issues regarding labor, environment, political views, etc.

Posted by: T | January 31, 2007 1:25 PM

I am Jewish, and had 2 children graduate from Blair - the ceremony for the eldest was at Jericho City of Praise. The ceremony was completely nonreligious. The church staff who were working the event were professonal, and did not use the occasion to proseletyze (or even end a conversation with the phrase "Bless you"). The inside of the building was almost completely devoid of ornamentation and there is a large Christian sign on the exterior of the building. There was no doubt about what the building was used for most of the time, but there was no hint of coercion by, lobbying for, or endorsement of, Christianity on the part of the school system. The students, their families, and the staff were focused on the excitement of graduation. It may be that some people did not like the setting, but in no way did this event constitution government endorsement of a particular religion. The question is, then, to what extent some discomfort should drive this decision. I think Mr. Weast went way overboard - insted the school system could have sent out a note with the graduation tickets saying that the ceremony was being held in a church, but the school system did not endorse that religion, that there would not be any religious component to the ceremony, and that graduation was a happy day for everyone.

Posted by: Blair Alum parent | January 31, 2007 1:26 PM

On a different point, isn't it strange that Montgomery County can't find a single place in Montgomery County to hold something as simple as a high school graduation?

Posted by: nashpaul | January 31, 2007 1:32 PM

I'll quote Barry Lynn, "A house of worship is not the proper forum for a public school graduation ceremony, where all students and parents should feel comfortable and welcome." That's good enough for me. Additionally, the Church had said that it was not willing to cover up the building's ubiquitous iconography during the event.

Posted by: questionauthority | January 31, 2007 1:35 PM

Why should one's spiritual life be forced to become sepaprate from one's public life. Why should it be necessary to closet one's religion because some small group feels threatened by people holding beliefs that they do not share. I roomed with an Islamic person in college, I would never have thought to ask him to hide his religion and accomodated separate refrigerators, dishes, use of the dorm room and time for prayer that he required to follow his faith. When we were upper-classmen we stayed room-mates even though he had the opportunity to move in with another muslim. I don't understand why so many people feel the need to force people to hide genuine expressions of their own spiritual identity in the effort to have a completely secular public life.

Posted by: Chris | January 31, 2007 1:36 PM

Score another point for the sensitivity police! This case is too silly for serious discussion.

Posted by: Chris | January 31, 2007 1:47 PM

"so it cannot afford the fancier venues that some other schools pay big bucks to use."

Virtually all of the other high schools in the county use DAR Constitution Hall.
What "fancier" venues were you referring to? Is Einstein HS better able to pay for a "fancier venue" than Blair HS?

There isn't a facility that can hold this many people in Montgomery County. The real question is why is the Comcast Center charging market rates to public high schools? Isn't it part of the public college system in Maryland?

Parents of students in MCPS pay for textbooks, playgrounds, PA wiring, security, AP test fees, class fees for supplies, copy machines, furniture, paint, and landscaping. Why is it just one school that can't afford all of the fees that come with a public school education in Montgomery County? What about the rest of the county?

Posted by: Ann | January 31, 2007 1:52 PM

I am happy with the Superintendent's decision, but saddened that the small pro-Jericho group claimed to "represent" the PTA, because that organization has long espoused public school ideals, which used to include supporting the rights of the minority, even when it might not be convenient (or comfortable).

This handful of parents was also deceptive in disparaging the atmosphere at the Showplace Arena. Recent graduations there have been festive and wonderful, and there is ample parking and seating. I feel sorry that some people think they cannot joyfully honor their children's accomplishments there.

Conflicting legal and personal opinions aside, and despite the fact that some non-Christian families have said they "don't mind" the church setting (luckily this is NOT the means to determine if it is OK!), this decision could have had an impact in other places. Not in Montgomery County perhaps, where people may not suffer from outright discrimination or religious persecution, but there are many places in the U.S. where minorities are made to feel uncomfortable every day, whether because of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. What if officials in these neighborhoods surmised, "if a public school in 'liberal' Montgomery County can have its graduation in a church, well so can we." Folks here can rationalize all they want, but that should be the point. Are velvet cushions and a bigger parking lot worth the potential harm this action could have had on the religious liberty of the parents and students who are not comfortable at Jericho (especially viewing the HUGE letters proclaiming "Jesus is Lord!!!!"), but who do not have the time or strength to fight this decision?

Posted by: Parent of Blair alums | January 31, 2007 1:55 PM

When did graduations become such a logistical nightmare? There was a time when the school gymnasium or stadium worked just fine. Why do we need super-sized arenas now? I can't help wondering if we are not suffering the ripple effect of overinflated "graduation" ceremonies at lower levels -- pre-school, kindergarden,... -- so that by the time the kids finish high school you think you need the Taj Mahal as a host site. Maybe we should return to the modest ideal where each student received a handful of tickets to the ceremony, and any other family members who come to town for the event can celebrate afterwards.

Posted by: Paul | January 31, 2007 2:02 PM

When Barry Lynn becomes our barometer for authority over the Consitituion we are in a world of hurt.

Posted by: T | January 31, 2007 2:10 PM


Thanks for getting the suburban bible-thumpers all riled up over this issue. Of course you are correct that non-Christians should feel completely comfortable with the idea of being forced to stare at a gargantuan "Jesus is Lord" banner for hours on end. Anyone who would feel less than comfortable in that situation is surely an uptight anti-American. Unfortunatley, however, we'll now have to listen to indignant WASP's bleating about "The War on Graduation" every year in addition to "The War on Christmas"...and you are handing out intellectual ammunition to these people like so many free Gideon bibles. Smooth move.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 2:17 PM


Thanks for getting the suburban bible-thumpers all riled up over this issue. Of course you are correct that non-Christians should feel completely comfortable with the idea of being forced to stare at a gargantuan "Jesus is Lord" banner for hours on end. Anyone who would feel less than comfortable in that situation is surely an uptight anti-American. Unfortunatley, however, we'll now have to listen to indignant WASP's bleating about "The War on Graduation" every year in addition to "The War on Christmas"...and you are handing out intellectual ammunition to these people like so many free Gideon bibles. Smooth move.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 2:17 PM

Christian wrote: EricS, do you think that I want to see a mennorah at Christmas time? No, I don't, but I TOLLERATE it. If people would be a little more tollerant, the children might learn not to hate. Yes, I said LEARN. They learn hate from somewhere and that somewhere is adults.

Wow, Christian, where have you found yourself where you were forced to look at a menorah (perish the thought)? Your analogy is completely off-base yet quite revealing.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | January 31, 2007 2:25 PM

I love hearing all of the Christian posters in this forum go on and on about how much they love to learn about their non-Christian friends' religions and cultures. Um, excuse me? As a member of a religous minority, I only ever get nasty and ignorant comments. Where have you all been my whole life?

And now I am supposed to be "tolerant" and "open-minded" and sit in a church for a secular graduation ceremony? I should be "willing to learn" about Christianity? Do you think I live in a bubble? Christianity is all around me, every day. Try walking in my shoes and see what the world looks like.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 2:35 PM

My constitutional rights were violated last month when I WAS FORCED to stare for hours on end at a "Happy Kwanzaa" banner at my child's school. It was oppressive, and I'm thankful that I made it out alive.

The damage to my fragile psyche, however, might be irreversible. Anybody know a good ACLU lawyer?

Posted by: puh-lease | January 31, 2007 2:36 PM

Loudoun Voter, are you trying to contribute something to this blog? What are the children in Loudoun learning these days?

Posted by: Piling | January 31, 2007 2:39 PM

Marc is absolutely right about this. This is about real estate and the size of the venue.

How many people know that almost every high school auditorium in MCPS is rented out for religious services every weekend? Should the school system stop this practice too?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 2:43 PM

Paul, you are absolutely correct. I graduated in CT in 2003, in a class of 420, and my HS had our graduation on the football field. Our rain site was our gym. However, I do understand that most HS's do not have a large enough gym to accomodate a graduation(ours had an indoor track).
I had never considered that High schools had graduations at locations away from the school until I came down here for college, when I noticed fairfax county schools having their graduations at the Patriot Center, which has 10,000 seats.
Nobody in my class seemed traumatized that they couldn't have all 30 relatives (including cousins they haven't seen in years) come to graduation.
Just some rambling thoughts on the subject

Posted by: worked for me | January 31, 2007 2:45 PM

To the 2:35PM poster, no one is forcing you to learn about Christianity. Your beliefs is your choice. You can either choose to take on a positive attitude toward events in you life or you can wake up each day expecting the same negative things to happen.

Posted by: Smile | January 31, 2007 2:48 PM

My graduation (in '82) was in the gym and every graduate received about 5 or 6 tickets for their family/friends to attend. If someone didn't use all of theirs, they gave them to someone else to use. I guess if you tried to do that nowadays, someone would lose their life so someone else could get a few more tickets. Sad.

Posted by: Hick | January 31, 2007 2:52 PM

I've worked on a number of graduations and attended even more as a faculty member.
What's wrong with an outdoor ceremony? Would rain count? What about the high winds that sometimes occur at the beginning of a storm in summer? How about temperatures and humidity both over 90? While the audience might be able to use umbrellas and dress for heat, those who wear the regalia that contributes to the specialness of the occasion have no such options. Stadiums tend to put the audience too far from the graduates.
Make the graduations smaller? You'd need to reduce the number of tickets. While that sounds simple, it's not necessarily the right solution. I've taught students who come from families that have six children. If there are only four tickets per student--a number that isn't unusual, which siblings stay home? And a considerable number of students in Montgomery County are the first in their extended families to graduate from high school. These graduates and their parents recognize this as a major event in the family's history, and they want as many relatives as possible to share in it--to actually be present to cheer their graduate, to have their pictures taken with their graduate, to celebrate something that too many of us take for granted. If your son or daughter were the first in your extended family to graduate, which relatives would you tell that they can't be present at the ceremony?
Montgomery County needs a suitable in-county venue--one that's large enough, appropriately formal, and close to public transportation.

Posted by: Been There Done That | January 31, 2007 2:54 PM


Well put. You nailed this one.

Posted by: KK | January 31, 2007 3:28 PM

Hey, the DC Convention Center needs more bookings. It's right at a metro exit. I'm sure you could work out a payment schedule with Fenty.

Posted by: Brilliant | January 31, 2007 3:38 PM

why do people keep dragging out the question about public schools being rented out for religious services, when it is not even relevant?? First of all, the people at the religious service are CHOOSING to attend and there is nothing in the school to counter their beliefs. Secondly there is also a law requiring equal access use of public facilities... Yet another messy aspect of a democracy...

Posted by: confused | January 31, 2007 3:40 PM

Just how big is this banner, and where is it situated? If it's right over the stage/altar/whatever you want to call the area where the kids will be going to pick up their diplomas, and can't be removed or easily cropped out of pictures, I don't think that is something I'd want permanently associated with graduation memories.

Posted by: question | January 31, 2007 3:42 PM

Thank you Marc for your article.

The BOE did the right thing in overturning the superintendent's decision. For nearly two years we in the Blair community sought to meet with and work with his staff to try to address the very real needs of our majority working class school, its 3000 students (largest in the county) and our graduating classes of 750 or so students which include hundreds of kids who are the first to graduate from an American high school.

Our efforts were met with arrogant disdain, and it was not until the new school board took a stand in favor of an adequate space for this important American right-of-passage that Weast finally moved to locate a secular venue that works for all. The Comcast Center is a good choice.

It's too bad that the Post editorial staff took it on themselves to pontificate on the use of the Jericho City of Praise without knowing any of the facts. Here are some facts that should also answer some of the continuing concerns stated in responses to your column:

1. Blair High School held its graduation exercises at JCoP in 2003, 2004, 2005. The Post didn't editorialize about it then, nor did any papers take notice until the superintendent unilaterally prohibited its use last year. But the Blair community had a long and public debate about it when we were first assigned the site and collectively concluded we were not jeopardizing the separation of church and state by taking advantage of an excellent site for our secular ceremonies.

2. The Blair PTSA was, from the beginning of the recent effort, sensitive to the potential constitutional issues involved with the site. That is why we consulted with constitional scholar and now state senator Jamie Raskin. Our legal advisor through the last six months is an attorney who has himself argued cases maintaining the separation of church and state. The legal briefs the PTSA submitted delved in depth into the constitutional questions.
We had and have no intention of weakening or eroding the wall that protects our secular institutions and we were and are confident that use of JCoP would have no such impact.

3. Jews, atheists and agnostics as well as members of other faiths spearheaded and supported the PTSA effort. The Blair community is privileged to have a wide diversity of faiths represented in our school. We are very aware of and sensitive to people's concerns. Ours is also among the most left-leaning school communities in the state. Takoma Park, a major part of the Blair family, is a community where George Bush finishes third in elections. We have more than a few folks who are activists around these very same issues, and we took their contributions very seriously in pursuing use of the JCoP. We were offended that Americans for the Separation of Church and State intervened in our community life without even talking to us, and declined to meet with us during our appeal. We are a pretty sophisticated community, perfectly capable of understanding the issues and defending the secular nature of our school institutions and we knew we were jeopardizing nothing by using JCoP for graduation.

4. For those who have lept to conclusions, I invite you to visit the Jericho City of Praise. It is not a cathedral like the one in northwest DC where so many of our national events are held. It is a beautiful facility that looks more like an auditorium than a church. Its theater-style design serves to involve those who attend events there, making it perfect not only for a certain type of worship but also for other public events. But it is almost totally devoid of religious adornment. There is a prominent religious phrase on an exterior wall facing the beltway, but then there is also a religious phrase on the external wall of DAR Hall, used by smaller MCPS schools for graduation. There are no crosses or other symbols inside, but a dove and a prayer are so high on an interior wall that many of us who attended a graduation there did not notice it. Jericho represents no threat to anyone's faith or lack thereof.

Approval of the use of Jericho was, as you wrote, the common sense solution. That we in the Blair community needed to fight for two years to get the superintendent to pay attention to our need for a larger venue is a travesty. We have far more important issues and challenges, like the redlining of MCPS schools so they are segregated by race and class; the resulting overcrowding of Blair High School which was too large when rebuilt for 2800 students, ballooned to 3500 four years ago and at 3000 today remains too large; the failure of MCPS to provide large schools like Blair with the necessary resources to support key functions, like getting transcripts out to colleges for the 300 or so seniors who applied early decision, etc.

Now that the issue is resolved, I invite those who were worried about church and state to maintain their interest in our schools and support our struggles for racial and class equity in MCPS.

Posted by: rscannell | January 31, 2007 3:46 PM

I don't totally disagree with you "Been there done that," but my guess is that most of the families the issue is not about accomodating six children (and would it be a great crime for a 6-year old to miss the graduation?) but more about leveraging gifts out of great uncles and third cousins. And besides, since every other attendee will be wielding some kind of video-recording device, it's not like everyone has to be in the hall. Some how saying that you need an 20,000 seat arena for a high school graduation strikes me as the same kind of escalation-becoming-the-norm scenario as teens who need to rent a helicopter limo for the senior prom.

Posted by: Paul | January 31, 2007 3:52 PM

I think you miss a point here, Marc. Why should someone want to "cross into another's territory" (i.e., a church) for a secular civic event paid for by his/her taxes when on any Sunday the same person may be prevented from feeling welcomed at the same church. Some churches spread bigotry against gays and some build barriers for women to enter the ministry. I say let's keep church and state separate. Long live freedom of religion and freedom from religion!

Posted by: Jerry D | January 31, 2007 4:42 PM

To be fair, Blair is staffed at a higher rate than other high schools. Blair has about 29 more teachers that it would be allotted if it were in another part of the county.

Posted by: Frances | January 31, 2007 4:51 PM

I think there should also be a great wall between sports and state. Look at the inflated price of the National's new ballpark.

But as long as the state pays to build megaparks so steroid monkeys can hit a ball and get paid a kazillion dollars to do so, the arenas should be free to schools for graduation ceremonies.

That's the least they could do for stealing the kids' lunch money and making them sit in leaky rooms that swelter in the spring and ice up in the winter.

Posted by: Truth B Told | January 31, 2007 5:24 PM

Turning down a free auditorium is nuts. A building is a building - it's bricks, mortar, studs, joists and rafters. Walking into a synogogue doesn't make you Jewish, walking into a mosque doesn't make you a Muslim, and walking into a church doesn't make you a Christian - any more than walking into a gym makes you an athlete (or walking into a university library makes you a scholar).

Use of the building in no way implies any endorsement of the religious institution by the school system, and attendence at the school function in no way implies any allegience to (or even respect for) the religion by the participating students and their parents.

At most - and this is at most - it suggests that the religious group is a good "civic neighbor" that's willing to host an important community event. Let's be honest - who feels a real need to be protected against that? If you've said that it's crossing the line, please ask yourself - would my beliefs have been challenged by my attending the graduation, or do I just not want for a group that I dislike to be seen doing something generous for the community?

We're placing a greater emphasis on a building than the members of the church do themselves. Ask them - they understand that the church is the group of believers, not the physical structure. It's not some sort of contageous "holy ground" that infects people who touch it with Christianity. It's borderline bizarre for secular liberals to act as if there's some great spiritual significance to a heap of lumber.

Posted by: Demos | January 31, 2007 5:25 PM

"I think you miss a point here, Marc. Why should someone want to "cross into another's territory" (i.e., a church) for a secular civic event paid for by his/her taxes when on any Sunday the same person may be prevented from feeling welcomed at the same church. Some churches spread bigotry against gays and some build barriers for women to enter the ministry. I say let's keep church and state separate. Long live freedom of religion and freedom from religion!"

Jerry, I have to say - this is crazy. You may not like what the church teaches. That's no reason to refuse to let them, for instance, donate blood. Or adopt a highway. Or contribute to a new library. Or offer the use of their auditorium for a school event.

The whole point is that the event would have to be "paid for by his/her taxes" if it's held in that hall. Take advantage of it. Otherwise, you're cutting your nose off to spite your own face. And, as my daddy spent years trying to teach me, that's purely dumb.

And the next morning, you'll have complete freedom of religion, and freedom from religion if you prefer. (It's not as if they would actually let you pray during the graduation, after all.)


Posted by: Demos | January 31, 2007 5:30 PM

Should be

The whole point is that the event would NOT have to be "paid for by his/her taxes" if it's held in that hall.

Posted by: Demos | January 31, 2007 5:32 PM

"The use of a RELIGIOUS facility for a GOVERNMENT (i.e., PUBLIC) function is different. The courts are very clear on this."

As a great man once said:

"the law is an ass"

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 5:34 PM


Posted by: Damian | January 31, 2007 7:16 PM

Since you don't have an objection to holding a public school graduation in a Christian Church, then next year, you probably wouldn't mind if the graduation was held in a Muslim Mosque... or the Athiest Center. I hear the Wiccan Coven is really cool too. The kids would love it! Very educational.

Posted by: KEVIN SCHMIDT, STERLING VA | January 31, 2007 9:44 PM

Just wanted to say thank your for posting. Your explanation makes the situation much more clear and understandable.

Posted by: Brian | February 1, 2007 9:01 AM

There is no Constitutional right to go through life unoffended. On the contrary, the free expression of opinions and the freedom of religion inherently generate offense.

Democracy is, at its very core, the most offensive form of government. All those pesky freedoms are bound to offend someone. Someone will always worship (an) offensive god(s). Someone will always have an offensive opinion. Someone will always be afraid of a gun owner. Someone will always be offended by law enacted by the Legislature.

We cannot be governed in fear of giving offense. That cripples the very freedoms that so many here claim to be defending. Once one group's freedoms are curtailed, all others are soon to follow in the spirit of "equality."

Posted by: single and denied | February 1, 2007 9:09 AM

Please ignore the extra contrary in the second sentence.

Posted by: single and denied | February 1, 2007 9:35 AM

"We have far more important issues and challenges, like the redlining of MCPS schools so they are segregated by race and class; the resulting overcrowding of Blair High School which was too large when rebuilt for 2800 students, ballooned to 3500 four years ago and at 3000 today remains too large; the failure of MCPS to provide large schools like Blair with the necessary resources to support key functions, like getting transcripts out to colleges for the 300 or so seniors who applied early decision, etc."

I'm not surprised by MCPS regarding this. Had there been similar overcrowding at schools in wealthy communities such as Whitman or B-CC, they probably would have been solved quickly -- wouldn't want to jeopardize the potential of one of those rich kids, you know. He or she might have to settle for a...public college (shudder!) instead of the Ivy or ersatz Ivy he or she is entitled to as an upper-class Montgomery resident. After all, they keep the school system's reputation afloat.

Posted by: Vincent | February 1, 2007 10:29 AM

I'm a Blair parent who is very surprised by the parent who said there was no problem with the Equestrian Center. All I've ever heard are complaints about lack of parking, lack of handicapped access, inadequate sound system, inadequate public transportation access (Blair has lots of parents without cars), etc. We had many Jewish parents say they had no problem with Jericho- even one with Orthodox parents who were not offended. The big "Jesus is Lord" sign is outside, not over the stage as everyone seems to think! As for using the football stadium- it's not that big. I think the Americans United group should pay for using Comcast, not Montgomery County taxpayers! I'm basically an atheist and I've been to many events at churches and synagogues and somehow managed to be not offended or feeling like I'm being preached to. To me, a church is just another building.

Posted by: Melissa Yorks | February 1, 2007 11:13 AM

kawanza is not a religious holiday. what's your point?

Posted by: quark | February 1, 2007 11:50 AM

Looks like I hit a nerve, eh Piling?

The children in Loudoun are learning quite well, thank you very much.

Posted by: Loudoun Voter | February 1, 2007 12:58 PM

It's not the principle of the thing, it's the money.

I heard Montgomery was spending $100,000 to rent a coliseum. How much would the church have cost?

Pick the cheapest venue. The taxpayers have to pay for this.

Posted by: stewart | February 1, 2007 3:50 PM

Ok, to be fair to those who are not Christian, I can well understand if there was a huge sign inside the church edifice that would have seriously marred the experience. But using this venue for free or for a lot less money would be better for the tax payers than trying to pay for some outrageously prices public space. Temple, Mosque, Church, tree stump....I think we as a society need to get over ourselves. We are so easily offended. I would hazard a guess and say that those kids were just looking forward to graduating. I don't think looking at the outside of a building where a sign is posted was gonna magically make someone get "saved".

Posted by: I'm in awe | February 1, 2007 4:58 PM

Weapons and violence in high schools; rape in high schools; gang activity in high schools: looks like a little religion or belief in some of their lives might not hurt. Some of these students probably haven't been in a church, temple, mosque, or any other house of worship for years (if ever). What's wrong with nudging them with a little comfort or hope? Maybe a thought of God, Allah, or Buddha, might give them some spiritual hope.

Posted by: Why give up hope? | February 1, 2007 9:07 PM

re: my earlier post.

People complain so much about how isolated they feel in modern society and I think that it has to do with how sterile we keep our human interactions. Left, Right and Middle we have no tolerance of viewpoints we don't share and make no allowance that there are gray areas when it comes to personal beliefs

Posted by: Chris | February 2, 2007 10:15 AM

We are all so busy trying to stake out "our" rights. It seems like we are turning living into an exercise in whatever is the "lowest common denominator". It might work in the short run for a few select groups, but in the long run will simply reduce the quality of life for all.

Posted by: kieth miller | February 2, 2007 12:00 PM

Three decades ago my high school graduation ceremony was held in a Midwestern Mormon church, for the same reason--so everyone could come. It was a nice big space. For those of other religions, it was a look at someone else's place of worship. I wasn't offended. Neither did my exposure to symbols of Mormon worship ever tempt me to convert.

Our public school bureaucrats, as fine as they are in many ways, do tend to have a hard time making just the kind of distinctions that Fisher urges. Kindergarteners get sent home (and worse) for failing to comprehend that a toy that looks like a weapon is going to be viewed as a weapon. Several years ago in Loudoun, a high school student was expelled for getting caught with a knife he managed to take away from a suicidal friend (and not reporting it immediately).

I agree with the comment of Lighten Up!

Posted by: Martha | February 7, 2007 3:11 PM

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