This past weekend, my Muslim friend graduated from The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. Her facebook album revealed that the commencement ceremony was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. One would assume Jesus looked down with a special disapproval at this particular graduation — as Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).
Obviously, the private Catholic University has every right to hold its own private school ceremonies and graduations in places of worship. Aesthetically, the Basilica is a truly stunning piece of architecture, and were it not a — well, a Basilica — it would be a beautiful location for a secular graduation as well.
And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recently, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State stated in a press release that a federal judge just declared a Connecticut school’s plan to hold graduation ceremonies at a Christian church unconstitutional. The school board was told to find an alternative venue.
Barry Lynn, the executive director of AU, said: “Though there’s no definitive U.S. Supreme Court decision barring public school graduation ceremonies from houses of worship, litigation across the country has made it clear that absent extraordinary circumstances, graduations should not be held in private church or religious institutions.”
There is extremely limited case law dealing specifically with the constitutionality of public school commencement activities held at a religious venue. And these cases haven’t made it any higher than the state supreme court level. The few cases that have been filed mostly allowed the church venue, sometimes citing space and acoustic concerns.
Since a higher court would not likely have case law directly on point to guide its reasoning, let’s examine possible arguments using the established Supreme Court precedent:
Holding a public graduation in a place of worship violates the establishment clause. The Supreme Court has already placed prohibitions on prayer before football games (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe) during graduations (Lee v. Weisman) and before a public school day (Engel v. Vitale). The present case is no different. Holding a school graduation in a place of worship sends a message of state endorsement because the choice of venue states clearly, if silently, that the school finds the religion behind the venue important — especially if other religious and secular venues were not considered. Government and religion is excessively entangled when a nonbelieving student is forced to graduate in a religious building or else miss one of the most important moments in their adult life.
Using a church venue for a public graduation does not violate establishment clause. The present set of facts are distinguishable from established Supreme Court principles because each case stated above involved prayer — a distinctly and overtly religious activity that students were subjected to. Here, nothing is overt. To non-subscribers, a building that happens to be a church is just a building — just like a stick figure of Muhammad without the religious belief forbidding the depiction is just a stick figure. So long as the school pays for the facilities and there is no prayer or other religious activity during the commencement, using a passively religious location is completely constitutional.
While there are logical arguments on both sides, if the current trend of decisions continue, church held commencements are likely to be struck down.
Would you be mad if your graduation was held in a building normally designated as a place of worship?