Facing this threat is the Cherokee County school district which has held graduation exercises at First Baptist Church of Woodstock since 2005. But more than a year ago, a complaint was made by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. and close cousin of ACLU. The group wanted the ceremony moved to a secular venue.
The district tried to reach a compromise including agreeing to make disclaimers at the start of the ceremony, but school board attorney Tom Roach said it is unlikely the church would consent to covering up crosses in the sanctuary. The AUSCS last month in a letter turned down any compromise.
No doubt, that was the result of a federal judge's ruling last May that the Enfield, Conn. school district's plan for graduation ceremonies at a large Christian church likely violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against Congress establishing a religion. The district's appeal to a federal appeals court was rejected.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by ACLU and AUSCS. The language of the decision by U.S. District Judge Janet Hall will be precedent in other cases involving the same issue. In granting an injunction barring use of the church, the judge said forcing non-Christians to choose between being surrounded by Christian symbols or not attending the ceremony would be coercive - and that requiring the church to cover or remove religious objects would violate the right of the congregation to be free from government interference.
Against that backdrop, the Cherokee school board last week decided to delay a decision on moving the 2011 graduation exercises from First Baptist Woodstock until three recently elected members of the board take office Jan. 20. As the board attorney said, the district will likely be hit by a lawsuit if the decision is made to use the church again.
It will be a whole new ballgame for seniors and their families and friends if the ceremonies have to be moved. By using the church, the school district spends only $2,000 for a facility that seats between 5,000 and 6,000 persons. Contrast that with a capacity of only 2,000 to 3,000 at many of the county's high school gyms - meaning the number of guests would have to be limited for graduating classes each numbering 400 to 500.
If the church is ruled out, the best option for the Cherokee schools would be the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at a cost of $70,000, school board attorney Roach said. The district has considered many other facilities - but none has as much seating capacity as the church and carries higher costs.
Henceforth if graduates are to invite extended family and lots of friends, about the only affordable option left is the outdoors.