Group Threatens Suit Over Graduation at Georgia Megachurch

A school board in Cherokee County, Ga., could face a legal battle if it decides to keep a local megachurch as the venue for its high school graduations.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State has threatened to sue the district if it continues to hold graduation ceremonies at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, contending that doing so would be unconstitutional, according to a report by the Cherokee Tribune.

The Washington, D.C.-based civic rights organization sent the district a complaint letter in October 2009 asking that the district move the ceremony to a secular venue. Last month, the group sent another letter reiterating its demands after the district unsuccessfully tried for the past year to compromise with organization, including offering to make disclaimers before the start of ceremony.

County school officials say that moving the graduation ceremonies from the 6,000-seat capacity church, led by former Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt, would dramatically increase the cost of the event and potentially limit the number of guests allowed. The district currently spends $2,000 per year to hold graduations at the church but other options may cost upwards of $40,000-$70,000, according to the Tribune.

Americans United executive director Barry Lynn downplayed the district's financial concerns, saying the only option is to move the graduation.

"We don't think you can trade away any student's constitutional rights just to get a cheaper or bigger space," Lynn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Last week, the Cherokee Board of Education debated the issue but decided to delay a vote on whether to change the graduation venue until next year. The board is expected to make a decision during its Jan. 20 meeting, when three new board members will be sworn in.

Members of the community that addressed the board during the meeting mainly supported the idea of retaining First Baptist, where the county has been holding graduations since 2005, as the venue for the upcoming event.

A father of a student at Woodstock High School set to graduate next spring received thunderous applause when he urged the board to resist against the bullying of an outside organization.

Greg Mikszan told the board it shouldn't let the group "impose their will on us" and "intimidate us," according to the Tribune.

If Cherokee County does end up in court, it wouldn't be the first school district that was challenged by Americans United for using a church to hold graduations.

In May, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that holding graduation ceremonies at The First Cathedral, an evangelical megachurch in Bloomfield, 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."

A Wisconsin judge, however, made a decision last year that 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.

Both cases are on appeal.

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