The Cherokee County school board voted unanimously on Thursday to keep graduations at a local megachurch in Georgia despite the threat of a lawsuit.
Some members of the board took a stand as they voted to continue holding high school graduations at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, which is led by former Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt. Three new members of the board were sworn in with a Bible at the meeting.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State has threatened to sue if the district didn't move the ceremony to a secular venue on grounds that it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The Washington, D.C.-based civic rights organization contended that holding public high school graduations at the megachurch, which the district has used since 2005, would expose attendants to religious imagery and symbols.
Parents, high school students and community members packed the meeting to capacity. Several students spoke before the board, receiving loud cheers and applause.
"To say that using a building violates one religious freedom is stretching the issue far beyond realistic boundaries," said Chase Chitwood, a high school senior.
Another student said he wanted the privilege to walk across the same stage as his sister during her graduation.
First Baptist Church can hold up to 7,000 people and costs the district $2,000 to rent.
Supporters say that moving the graduation to a venue of similar capacity would dramatically increase the costs to about $40,000.
"For just one day, we should just be able to put it aside … and graduate together and let all of our family be together who has supported us," Tori Tomlinson, a senior, told the board.
New board member Robert Wofford said the issue wasn't about religion but settling on the most cost-efficient space there is for the district, according to Cherokee Tribune.
"I'm not voting for a church or against a church," he said.
AU has sued two school districts in the past over the same issue. One court ruled in favor of the district; the other, against. Both cases are on appeal.
Last year, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that holding graduation ceremonies at The First Cathedral, an evangelical megachurch in Bloomfield, Conn., is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall ordered two Enfield high schools to move their events elsewhere, concluding from her visit to the church that it was "overwrought with religious symbols."
In 2009, however, a Wisconsin judge allowed Elmbrook Joint Common School District to hold ceremonies at a local church. U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert ruled that the district's decision to use Elmbrook Church as the site of its graduations did not excessively entangle church and state.
The Cherokee County school board's attorney told WSBTV that the district will read disclaimers before the start of the ceremony. He also said he and his firm will also work for free if a lawsuit is filed.