Cherokee County School District’s Graduation Shouldn’t Be in a Church

The Cherokee County School District in Georgia thinks it’s a good idea to have graduation in the First Baptist Church of Woodstock. Not because it’s a religious place, of course. No, no, no… it’s tradition. They’ve done it since 2005. So they have to keep doing it, see?!

(By the way, just ignore the massive cross in the back of the worship space…)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has threatened the district with legal action if it does not find an alternate secular location to conduct the graduations.

The county school board last Thursday postponed until its Jan. 20 meeting a vote on whether to move the ceremonies.

A little more on the story — AU actually sent a letter to the school last year essentially saying “Move the ceremony or face a lawsuit.”

The district responded by saying they needed time to find an alternate venue, so would it be ok to hold the 2010 graduation in the church with a promise to scope out other places for 2011?

AU felt that was reasonable.

But now, several months and one graduation service later, the district is no closer to finding a venue:

Over the past year, the District identified five potential venues, all of which are either too small, too expensive or not available…

Too bad, says AU (rightly, in my opinion). We gave you time. You figure this out. Cost doesn’t trump the Constitution.

(I would imagine losing the lawsuit would cost the district far more than a graduation ceremony would, anyway…)

You can guess the majority reaction from the locals:

Roxanne Hogue of Woodstock, the mom of a senior at Woodstock High, said she supports the use of the church because of its low cost.

The district pays the church $2,000 for each school’s ceremony at the 7,000-seat facility.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.

Mrs. Hogue added that many families already have spent money on graduation invitations and airline reservations based on the planned dates of the ceremonies. School district officials said it’s unlikely another special events facility could be reserved for the same dates in May.

Mrs. Hogue and Mrs. [Darleen] Prem disagree, noting no one who attends the ceremonies is forced to partake in any religious ceremony.

“It’s only a building to hold a graduation ceremony,” Mrs. Hogue added.

That’s complete bullshit.

If the only available building happened to be a local mosque, you can bet these same parents would be doing everything in their power to change the venue. But since it’s a church that pushes their beliefs, they don’t see any problem with it.

It’s not that this is just a secular auditorium that happened to be in a church. In addition to the cross above the stage, one reader who attended a graduation in the district told me (though I have not been able to verify):

[The] pastor came on with a nice “Come to church and meet Jesus” video message just before the actual event.

If that’s true, there’s no argument. This is illegal.

Even if that wasn’t the case, the school should keep working to find a better venue. AU should continue keeping the pressure on until the district does the right thing.

One positive note to all this is that a reporter interviewed a local atheist leader, Ken Riddle, co-founder of the Cherokee County Secular Family Network, to get his take on the controversy.

Riddle, who has one child in elementary school in the school district and a younger child, said the church’s sanctuary is an “inherently religious setting.”

He urges people supporting the use of the church to look at the other side of the coin.

“A number of people in the community just don’t know what it’s like to be in the minority,” he said.

Very nicely represented for his first media interview!

Ken actually has a wonderful history of this case on his blog — and he explains how he handled prepping for the conversation with the reporter. It may not sound like a big deal but it can be nerve-wracking the first time a reporter says she wants to speak with you. Ken handled it wonderfully.

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  • Chris M

    I’ve looked in to paying for a local mosque when a school around here said the same thing. We don’t have one that’s big enough.

    If there’s on nearby let us know. I’ll cough up some cash to help out. I mean, the school district can’t turn down a free graduation even if it is in a mosque, right?

  • Seems to me that if you keep the pastor quiet and cover up the cross, there wouldn’t be any issue. From a secular point of view, an auditorium is just an auditorium.

    The locals wouldn’t mind that would they? Why do I have this niggling feeling that covering the cross would be “an outrageous violation” of their right to force their beliefs on others.

  • Sven

    It seems strange to celebrate education in a center of ignorance. But on the whole I agree with David McNerney here; “From a secular point of view, an auditorium is just an auditorium.”
    I say: cover up the cross (preferably with an FSM blanket), and to be extra safe, keep the pastor out for the day.

  • Rob

    OK…. For $2000, we should have a national atheist meeting in Cherokee County and host it at this church. Since they obviously are open to renting it to the public, they should have no problem with this. It looks perfect for a conference with the big video screens and lighting.

  • AU is one of the few I always suggest to people when mentioning donating to organizations that help the USA from not turning into a theocracy.

  • Trace

    I am with David, drapes over the cross… I suspect there may be other “reminders” in the building and grounds though.

  • CiaranSidheag

    The problem isn’t JUST the giant cross or the general idea of a non secular location … you also have to consider the $2000 being given to that particular christian organization every year. I am assuming the money to fund the graduation most likely comes either from tax dollars or from PTA funds. Either way, I would not be happy that money I have invested in public school programs is helping to fund a religious organization. If the venue was provided free of charge, and the pastoral proselytizing wasn’t taking place, then as a parent I wouldn’t really care that it was in a church. After all, it is just a building, and hopefully crosses aren’t contagious.

  • Oscar

    It is weird/nice to see my community mentioned in Friendly Atheist… Yeah they have been at it since that mega church opened and I always found it anti-constitutional, even when I was still a catholic (in name only, I have had doubts since I was 10).
    And yeah, theres nothing as big as that church around here so I can understand the necessity, but there’s Kennesaw State University (my alma mater) nearby and they have plenty of space there, though that’s in another county.

    As an aside, thanks for letting me know about Ken, I only know fellow atheists from my student group at KSU.

  • Chrisbar

    This school is in Georgia. If money is a factor, have them use the football field that half the school’s funds likely go to building/maintaining. It should have plenty of room and there’s no separation of sports and state. If it worked for my high school, it can work for them.

  • Scott

    I graduated from Cherokee High and walked at this church (aka Six Flags Over Jesus aka The JesusDome), as did my brother and multiple cousins/friends. Although I didn’t protest my disagreements at the time, I do have a slight problem with this. Not because it’s a church (cause money and space are limited for our county), but because of the negative reactions from several Christians that have discussed this matter. Their solution for atheist or non-christian students is to “just don’t walk.” Which I find very upsetting. Yes, it’s just graduation, but graduation is an important part of a student’s life. They should ALL be allowed to participate with EACH OTHER. If not, it just makes the kids that aren’t there feel even more left out or different. And for growing minds getting ready to enter the “real world,” I don’t see that as a good thing. Basically, Christians are saying, “Well, it’s OUR church so it’s OUR party…and if you don’t like it you can get out!”

  • Synapse

    It seems like people put in charge of finding another location weren’t exactly well motivated.

    Kennesaw State University sounds like it would be a viable option. They might have to actually change the date of graduation – not have it on a Saturday or something and they may not get a deep-we-get-to-proselytize discount.

    It’s kinda like Dick Cheney’s search for a VP candidate. You’ll find any excuse to exclude alternatives, when you’ve already made a choice you like. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    The district pays the church $2,000 for each school’s ceremony at the 7,000-seat facility.

    Public school funds should not go to a megachurch. That is all.

  • Erp

    I note that $2,000 might be a reasonable rent given that it probably covers the cost of setting up and taking down and clean up. The government shouldn’t support a religion but it should pay for purely secular services rendered even by a religious institution.

    I can see some cases where using a church building might be reasonable assuming certain precautions such as removing or hiding overtly religious symbols and no religious message (e.g., emergency homeless shelter after a tornado). However some religions prohibit their members from entering the religious places of other religions so holding a public school graduation in a church could violate their rights (I wonder if the school has any Wisconsin Lutheran Synod members or very orthodox Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses).

  • Brandy

    My high school graduation was at a baptist church when I graduated in 1999 and I think they’re still held there. I always wondered after the fact how that was legal, but at the time I was so deep in fundie-world (and actually attended the church where it was held) that I didn’t really think anything of it.

  • Anonymous

    The government shouldn’t support a religion but it should pay for purely secular services rendered even by a religious institution.

    Erp, you wanna think about this again? You’re suggesting that the school’s public funds (for the rental) are not supporting a religion? That’s precisely what it is. (On top of the government support of tax breaks and perhaps even faith-based initiatives) And from the looks of the place, they’re rich as all get-out. The church could afford to give the space for free to participate in the community (and aren’t churches about charity?) but they’re charging top dollar for it instead.

  • Should students be exposed to christian messaging as part of their graduation exercises from a public school? No.

    Should churches automatically be excluded as potential graduation venues solely because they are churches? No.

    Both are human rights violations-the first a violation of freedom of conscience, the second of economic freedom. (Articles 18 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights respectively)

    If a church wants to propose that its venue be considered as a possible graduation venue, they need to be advised of the legal issues related to freedom of conscience and what would be required (no proselytzing, covering/removing overtly religious items, ensuring appropriate training for any staff who would be working at the event, etc.) There should be a stiff penalty clause forfeiting all rental monies and future rental opportunities should these provisions be breached.

    Then the church can make a reasoned decision if it still wants to offer its premises-if it does, the proposal would be one among the others that would also be solicited and could be judged on its merits as a venue.

    For those who want to immediately exclude the church, how much are you and AU going to contribute to pay the rental differential?

    As Hemant said, “Cost doesn’t trump the Constitution.” Think of all the money AU would save if it helps the district meet its obligation and subsidizes an alternative venue rather than going to court. It’s easy to stand on principle and tell people what they must do when you aren’t picking up any of the tab. (It was nice to see @Oscar make a suggestion for an alternate location)

    Catholic nations historically forbade jews from engaging in many types of commerce and public service on the basis of their religion-let’s not advocate similar discrimination in an attempt to prevent a different abuse of rights.

  • Mike

    My high school graduation was held in the high school gym. Is it the vogue thing now to hold your graduation offsite?

  • I agree that you cold just cover up the religious symbols and keep the pastor quiet, but even then, the school is paying the church for the use of the venue, therefore, funding a religion…

  • Stef

    Actually, we would be willing to go to a mosque if it were as large as this church. Any place at all, religious or not. With graduation in this church, the kids can invite many, many people. If it’s moved to any other venue in the area they will be limited to about two or three guests. There are simply no other venues like this church. During graduation, no one will be preaching, there will be no prayers, and you don’t have to convert to Christianity to enter the sanctuary. The school board has offered to cover the cross during graduation (with no complaints from any of the local Christians) but the au said that was unacceptable. This has nothing to do with separation of church and state and I think all of you know that.
    My children are graduating this year in Cherokee county and they want to invite their family and friends to the event. They will be disappointed if it gets moved. So will a lot of other children.

  • Stef

    They are not funding a religion by paying the church. They are just covering the cost of the event.

  • moxicity

    Just wanted to chip in with my 2c. I live in Estonia and went to a private school. I only found out after admittance that it’s actually technically a Christian school – something not well known and quite rare around here.

    The school also doesn’t express its Christian roots very much – we have a general, short, neutral prayer by the world religion or philosophy teacher (both Christians) perhaps 2-3 times a year – in the Sept 1 formal gathering, Christmas and end-of-year gathering.

    We also have the Christmas concert in my town’s only Lutheran church (the few others are Russian Orthodox). We don’t have a sermon. But, of course, I go to a private school – municipal schools, which are the vast majority of schools, have almost no contact between students and religion.

    Of course, that church is very frequently used for all kinds of concerts simply because for its roominess and acoustics. Small-ish town and not many good places for music like that – especially choir music.

  • Crystal

    They’ve been doing it alot longer than 2005! I graduated from Etowah High School in 1997, and we had our graduation ceremony in that same church (it’s one of those mega-churches that are bigger than some hospitals). Some high schools from neighboring counties also had their graduation ceremonies there because it was the biggest church in the region, and there weren’t many other large venues at the time. As for my graduation, I remember the pastor being there and speaking, but, to be honest, I don’t remember what he said since I was pretty excited about the whole graduating part. My sister, who graduated from Woodstock High School (same county), also had her grad ceremony in that same church in 2006, but my brother, who graduated a few years earlier, had his graduation ceremony at the high school stadium. I don’t think people liked that very much as it was hot, humid, and there was no shade. I am not surprised it was moved back to the church.

    Kennesaw State University, mentioned above, is possibly a good option for them, but since KSU likes to make a pretty profit off of everything they do, I expect renting space for graduation would cost a great deal more. Especially since the university is trying to pay off the parking decks and new dining hall they just built and are trying to raise funds for a football team.

    Alot of people from the community go to this church, and since I am in the heart of conservative, Christian Georgia (Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson, and Tom Price were all representatives in this district… in fact, we didn’t even have a democrat option in this most recent election!), I can bet 99% of the parents and students have absolutely no objection to it being held in a church. I can pretty much predict that this is going to make atheists and secularists even more hated in this community. I’m definitely going to have to keep my head down unless I want my car keyed or something.

  • Beth

    I’m with “Eh”theist on this one. I think the AU is severely overreacting. Proselytizing at graduation? Obviously bad. Using a building? Paying to rent that building? Not a problem. They’re not paying for religion, they’re paying for a secular service rendered, even if it is by a religious organization.
    I’m all for making sure that Christianity does not become government policy, but sometimes I think we jump the shark.

  • asonge

    Stef: there’s a few sniff-tests you can do here to see what this is really about for people in the community. Substitute “church” for “mosque” or “synagogue” and see their reaction. Second, the church should be willing to accomodate by covering or removing many religious symbols. Third, staff should be trained to not proselytize. You have no idea the discomfort involved in being an atheist invited to a church for a secular event…particularly if you were Christian at some point in your life. Not to mention people of other religions who aren’t allowed to enter into the holy spaces of other religions.

  • Samiimas

    They are not funding a religion by paying the church. They are just covering the cost of the event.

    I’m sure if they were giving 2000 bucks to a mosque you’d have no problem with it.

    I don’t believe for a second that this is the only available venue. This is just an excuse to shove religion down people’s throats and to hand over wads of the tax payers cash to the local church.

  • Nicole

    Seems to me that if you keep the pastor quiet and cover up the cross, there wouldn’t be any issue. From a secular point of view, an auditorium is just an auditorium.

    ^ this

    Although the two thousand dollar thing is a little iffy. It’s expensive to setup and clean up for an event like this though, as noted above.

  • Crystal

    I don’t believe for a second that this is the only available venue. This is just an excuse to shove religion down people’s throats and to hand over wads of the tax payers cash to the local church.

    Quite honestly, they just go to this church because it is huge. It doesn’t have anything to do with spreading religion. There are literally dozens of churches in just Woodstock alone, and well over 100 in Cherokee County. The biggest venues in this county outside of this church would be the high schools, or possibly Reinhardt College – but that is a private, Methodist college.

    The other options are pretty pricey (Kennesaw State University was mentioned) or very limited (such as the high school gyms or stadiums), not to mention uncomfortable. I don’t have a problem with it being held in the church, honestly, since it’s the biggest venue this area has, but covering the huge cross and not displaying the religious messages on the giant tv screens before the ceremony begins (neither of which they did at my sister’s graduation) would be a good idea. As for the religious memorabilia outside of the hall, this is a Baptist church. There’s not alot of religious iconography going on, unlike a Catholic church for instance.

  • Should churches automatically be excluded as potential graduation venues solely because they are churches? No.

    Make that yes. Of course, they should be automatically excluded for a public school graduation. WTH kind of shitty attitude is that of yours? And frankly playing the poor persecuted Christian card in America is about as pathetic as it gets.

    As is mentioned above, there are religions that wouldn’t allow them to enter the church. You’re quite (while you claim bigotry against anyone not willing to use a church) willing to exclude any children from their faith. Frankly, I wouldn’t want my daughter’s graduation from college or my grandson’s school graduation to be in a church. Period.

    As was also mentioned above, there’s the fact that tax/school money is helping support the church. I don’t care how long it’s been going on. Just because the law’s always been broken is not an excuse for breaking it in the future. Why should anyone be forced to support a religion not their own? Even if it merely covers the cost of hosting it (bullshit), it still promotes the church just by the mere use of it.

    Covering the symbols etc. doesn’t solve these two issues. At all. I hope AU sticks by their guns and doesn’t agree to some sort of bullshit compromise like that.

    I’m with Mike here. WTF’s wrong with the gym? Ooh, everyone couldn’t invite their whole freaking extended family. Might have to limit it to parents and siblings and a grandparent or two. Oh, my. My graduation was in the school gym and we were all given six tickets for family members. Anyone who didn’t need six for immediate family was asked to volunteer theirs for people with large family. If you needed more, you could call the school office and see if anyone had extra tickets to let you use. I only needed four so I turned two in.

    Of course, I graduated decades ago before the age of entitlement. We didn’t think everyone even distantly related to us should be invited to the ceremony itself. The graduation party our families gave us after, of course. But not the ceremony. We, by and large, asked our parents and siblings. Occasionally, a grandparent that lived in the home with the child graduating. That was it.

    Once again, I’m glad I renewed my AU membership.

  • Crystal

    I’m with Mike here. WTF’s wrong with the gym? Ooh, everyone couldn’t invite their whole freaking extended family. Might have to limit it to parents and siblings and a grandparent or two. Oh, my. My graduation was in the school gym and we were all given six tickets for family members. Anyone who didn’t need six for immediate family was asked to volunteer theirs for people with large family. If you needed more, you could call the school office and see if anyone had extra tickets to let you use. I only needed four so I turned two in.

    I’m not quite sure about the number of people a high school gym will hold, but when we had our pep rallies in my high school, the place was packed, and that was less than 2000 students. The graduating classes are roughly 500 each, so if about 2000 people can fit in the gym bleachers, that means the students get four tickets each. As I grew up in this community, I can say with confidence that this would not be acceptable to many here. When I graduated, I had my parents, my two siblings, my boyfriend, and my aunt and uncle there. I would have had another aunt there if she hadn’t been heavily pregnant at the time. I have a close family, as do many people in the south. You may call the desire to see family members graduate “entitlement”, but I consider that normal. I’m sure that’s normal for most people in this community.

    I would also like to note that those gym bleachers are not very accommodating to the elderly or the physically limited. So even if you could get tickets for grandma, she probably wouldn’t be able to sit with the family anyway.

  • Kamaka

    @ Crystal

    I remember the pastor being there and speaking, but, to be honest, I don’t remember what he said

    And why exactly was the pastor given time to say anything? Is he employed by the high school?

    but covering the huge cross and not displaying the religious messages on the giant tv screens before the ceremony begins (neither of which they did at my sister’s graduation) would be a good idea.

    The christers just can’t pass up a chance to spread the “news” to a captive audience, it’s what they do.

    No wonder AU is on this.

    I can bet 99% of the parents and students have absolutely no objection to it being held in a church.

    I doubt it’s even close to 99%. The community has no Jews, Hindus, Muslims? It’s likely that at least 20% of the students are godless, even if they (are forced to) go to church.

    But that’s beside the point. This is a blatant violation of the law.

    The other options are pretty pricey (Kennesaw State University was mentioned) or very limited (such as the high school gyms or stadiums), not to mention uncomfortable.

    Inconvienience and discomfort are no excuse for violating the law.

    I can pretty much predict that this is going to make atheists and secularists even more hated in this community.

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State isn’t an atheist group. Their exectutive director is Reverend Barry Lynn, a christian minister.

  • I’m with the “what’s wrong with the gym or football field” crowd. Spending taxpayer money to rent a venue when tax dollars have already provided a venue (the school itself) is remarkably silly.

    I graduated in 1981, and we had the ceremony on the football field, with the gym for backup in case of rain. My girlfriend at the time had her graduation on her school’s front lawn. Most public schools have auditoriums, does this school not have one?

  • Crystal


    And why exactly was the pastor given time to say anything? Is he employed by the high school?

    No, he was probably just welcoming the students, parents, and faculty. Since it was 13 years ago, I really can’t remember what he said, though.

    The christers just can’t pass up a chance to spread the “news” to a captive audience, it’s what they do.

    No wonder AU is on this.

    I don’t doubt you’re right, but like I said, there are over 130 churches in Cherokee County. They aren’t picking this venue because it is a church. It’s because it’s big.

    I doubt it’s even close to 99%. The community has no Jews, Hindus, Muslims? It’s likely that at least 20% of the students are godless, even if they (are forced to) go to church.

    But that’s beside the point. This is a blatant violation of the law.

    Why do you think “at least 20% of students are godless”? I would be surprised if 20% of students in this county were godless. I would be thrilled, honestly, but I would be surprised. This is a very Christian majority community. As I mentioned above, this is the district which gave you Newt Gingrich, and our current representative is Tom Price. These are representatives of most of the people in this community, and I’m sure you know the kind of crap Newt Gingrich spews. Also, if you read the blog by Ken Riddle, you would see that the majority of his friends and neighbors want to continue to fight this lawsuit because they want to continue to have graduation ceremonies at the church. This isn’t just my perspective of the community, nor is my community an isolated case in the state of Georgia.

    Inconvienience and discomfort are no excuse for violating the law.

    I agree with you, but I am saying what the community thinks. I would prefer to sit in an air conditioned building to watch a graduation, but I agree that it isn’t consistent with the law.

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State isn’t an atheist group. Their exectutive director is Reverend Barry Lynn, a christian minister.

    Note I also said secularists. It doesn’t matter if they are an atheist group or not. The community is already blaming atheists. Look at the comments on the Cherokee Tribune article.

    Having lived the past 22 years in this community, I can tell you that the majority of parents and students are going to be pissed about this, even if it is following the law. I will say that the church in the case Does v. Enfield Public Schools does not represent the type of church this is. There aren’t “JESUS CHRIST IS LORD” banners everywhere. The law is the law, though, and should be upheld. I am just saying that the community is going to be upset, and they will blame atheists for this. They already are.

  • travis

    I wonder if the church pays taxes on that income?

  • Scott

    Cherokee High School absolutely has an auditorium, but that’s where students make fun of the “gay” drama kids, so no dice.

    Apart from an original gym, a new one was built 2001-2003. Plenty of room in those, but knowing Cherokee County they’d probably make the white kids graduate in the new one and the black/mexican students use the old one. Sounds ridiculous, but we ARE talking about Cherokee County.

    The football fields, now there’s an idea…oh wait, football is God’s sport. Nevermind.

    In all seriousness, Cherokee County has has two giant, awesome parks that could easily hold graduations. Throw some bleachers up and “get er done.” I haven’t been inside the new YMCA, but is that big enough one wonders?

  • Frances

    I saw this on my local news (I live a couple counties over) and they interviewed a Jewish girl who said that she could not attend her graduation there because the cross was just too prominent and it went against her beliefs. If it affected even one student that way, it is completely wrong to hold it there.

    They also interviewed a lot of people who said that the AU doesn’t know anything about them or their community, which is a lame excuse. They know you are violating the separation of church and state, and that is enough. They also said that there have not been very many complaints over the years, but I guess they do not realize that of course people don’t speak up when they see the way you treat the current complaints. There are probably a lot more students unhappy with the situation.

    Their biggest complaint in moving the ceremony seems to be that students would be able to invite fewer people to graduation. My school did that for years and nobody seemed too upset. Usually there were enough students who only had one or two people coming that you could trade them and invite all the necessary people. Inviting more people is not a good reason to hold it in a church.

  • Richard P.

    First off if there is any opening prayers or video evangelism going on, I agree it should be stopped and stopped hard.

    The rest however is just being petty.
    The cost is a decent saving for the schools and ultimately for the tax payers.
    The fact the accomidation happens to be in a church is just shitty luck, but by that fact you have to expect to see religious paraphernalia. So what if there is a cross in the background, your not there for the background. If your offended by it, suck it up. To be offended by this is as stupid as being offended about atheist billboards.

    In fact, I think just bringing it up is more of a problem than it being there. For the most part people won’t even notice it. There? or not there? What the hell is the difference? Other than someone deciding to be offended, what is the difference? Are we not always harping on christians being offended by our show of presence? What the fuck gives us the right then?
    Seems hypocritical to me.
    A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all.

  • Frances

    Also, for all the people who say that holding at one of the many outside venues would be too uncomfortable and hot, one of Georgia’s most prominent universities, Emory University, from which I graduated, always holds their graduation outside. I have been to that graduation three or four times and it was never hot because it was held in the morning; in fact, some years we needed sweaters and blankets. If what is good enough for a top-40 school isn’t good enough for them, that is their own problem. Late May and early June are not that hot in the morning, even in Georgia.

  • Random Joke

    I am leaning towards the school side on this one. I attended one of the best universities in the US, and some department’s graduation ceremony were held in a Jewish temple filled with religious paraphernalia. It was beautiful!

    As long as there is no proselytizing in the ceremony, that church is a great place to hold the ceremony.

  • Jonas

    I’ll admit to some mixed feelings about this, as I admit I do not refuse to attend secular events which happen to be held in places of worship.

    A comment though — one of the local court houses in my town uses a space in the basement of the church across the street as a jury room. — I am not familiar with the arrangement between the Church and the city, regarding it. — But it does make me wonder.

    First – any increase in cost will be paid for by the taxpayers, so it financially backfires to find another space. — Secondly, the church is already a Tax Free organization, have the city tell the church — that’s enough.

    — So a further compromise: if they stay in the church, the church must provide the space free of charge, cover the cross, and refrain from proselytizing of any kind.

  • @Donna Hamel

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but my answer still stands at “no”. My argument isn’t based on pity for christians. A local mosque bought a hall from a dying fraternal organization, and when they realized it would pay off their mortgage sooner, they began renting it to groups (much to the consternation of other mosques in the area).

    As part of the executive for a local committee, we were looking for a venue for an event and the mosque was suggested-some folks made the same sorts of discriminatory arguments as you and others here have made, only directed at muslims. I made the same arguments as I did here, with the same proviso that their beliefs not play any role in our use of the facility (I think my exact quote was “the contract should read ‘we can have a boys and girls naked splosh pile of beer and BBQ’ if we want”).

    We considered the venue, and based on price and religious-based restrictions they wanted to impose, we chose not to use the mosque, but we didn’t discriminate in the decision-making process.

    If atheists support legal restrictions on people and groups performing nonreligious actions because of their faith, they open the door to restrictions on themselves because of their not having faith. One abuse of human rights paves the way for others. The catholic laws against jews prepared society for the “final solution”.

    It’s the same sort of discrimination as the christians in Texas who wanted the atheists banned from the christmas parade because of their lack of faith.

    In all likelihood the church wouldn’t want to rent the venue once it learned the efforts it would have to take to be compliant with the law, and the penalities for noncompliance. And that would be fine, it would be a rational choice, which is what we’re supposed to promote.

    It’s a slippery slope when we decide everything religious people do is religious-we need to show a better example then they set-ensuring the law is upheld, while not going beyond it into discrimination.

  • Kamaka

    @ Crystal

    No, he was probably just welcoming the students, parents, and faculty.

    What I’m getting at here is the pastor has no standing to have anything to say before the graduation ceremony. He’s insinuating himself where he doesn’t belong. The church is supposed to be a venue rented for an event. The huge cross dominating the room, giant screens playing jeebus messages, a pastor taking advantage of a captive audience…this is a clear, unambiguous violation of the Establishment clause. The well is poisoned. The actors in this illegal activity can’t be trusted to uphold the law.

    From the newpaper article:

    “It’s about what’s best for the kids, and this place is best for the kids,” she said.

    What’s best for the kids is to learn that the law applies to all.

    From the comments at said article:

    When are the courts going to realize that lawsuits of this type are not against schools, or a minority who might be offended, but are against a true and living God?

    Having a graduation ceremony at a Church is not what this is about. It is about making a strike against God, and if these atheist were honest, they would stand up and admit it.

    But without God in their lives, there is no reason to be honest.

    I like the malicious libel at the end of that quote.

    So, obviously, you are correct, Crystal, your neighborhood has it’s fair share of irrational, self-righteous godbots who can’t be reasoned with.

    But too bad for them, they will lose this lawsuit.

  • Kamaka

    @ Crystal

    Why do you think “at least 20% of students are godless”? I would be surprised if 20% of students in this county were godless. I would be thrilled, honestly, but I would be surprised. This is a very Christian majority community.

    Sorry, I should not have made this claim. I thought I could back it up, but that is not so. According to a Pew survey, 25% of adults 18 to 25 are “unaffiliated”. I couldn’t find numbers for atheism in that age group, but the survey says 4% of all adults self-report as atheists or agnostics.

    See “A Note on Defining Religious Affiliation” partway down the page.

    I don’t buy the atheist/agnostic numbers. This is based on self-reporting and given the opprobrium attached to the word “atheist”, I believe the numbers skew low to very low.

  • Vanessa

    I only have a problem with this because the church is making money from it. If the church was nice enough to let the school district use it for free, go ahead and have your ceremonies in it. If you have to pay 2000 dollars? Come on, some place on school property would be cheaper.

  • Erp

    $2,000 might well be a reasonable cost if it includes setup and cleanup (an event on school property may well include cost of labor to setup, rental of extra items, takedown, and cleanup). If anything the church may be taking a loss on this in order to get a chance to evangelize.

    @ anonymous.

    I did think. If a religious organization provides a purely secular benefit to a government entity it can receive payment. For instance let us say the local government wants to make a children’s playground and a local church offers to sell some land at the going rate to the government for that purpose, should the government be prohibited from taking them up on that offer and paying the fair market value? What if they offer to rent at a reasonable rate? Again should the government not be able to take them up on the offer (assuming no religious restrictions on the use of the land).

    The problem here is two fold:
    1. Religion is intruding into what should be a non-sectarian ceremony, a public high school graduation, both by the pre-ceremony videos, possibly the pastor’s speech [if he is saying don’t pick the flowers and watch for pedestrians when exiting the parking lot, that is one thing, welcoming them in the name of God is another], and by the large cross. Canning the pre-ceremony videos and speech and covering the cross and other religious items would alleviate this. Also in the program making it clear the school is renting the space and that the ceremony is in no way sponsored by the church.
    2. Some religions prohibit members from entering sacred space of other religions. They would possibly be placed in a difficult position even if the religious imagery was covered.

  • Hello Friendly Atheist community,

    Thank you all for your kind support. It’s been an interesting week.

    I declined an interview with Amanda Cook of WSB-TV Channel 2 tonight. I don’t want to be the face of the opposition. I’m not leading the charge in this fight. I just happen to be the guy who started a local secular community group. A reporter wanted my opinion, so I offered it. I can cross “media interview” off my bucket list.

    I guess I can cross “declined media interview” off as well (as soon as I write it down).

    I didn’t start the Cherokee County Secular Family Network to jump into the frying pan every time a religious controversy appears. I started the group to fellowship with like-minded members of my community. We drink coffee, eat donuts and chat while our kids run around the playground. We hope to get out to a museum and do some community service next year.

    Four months. That’s all the time it took for controversy to find our group. We had our first meeting in September.

    I’m with Crystal – I’m going to keep my head down for awhile. I’ll continue to write about the issue on The Optimistic Atheist and I’m seriously considering a letter to the board, but I’m not going to the Jan. 20 meeting and I’m not doing any more interviews. For now.

    I am considering holding our next Secular Family meeting at Taco Mac for beer and wings the same night as the board meeting.

    I need to make one correction. The article said we have 18 families. Umm, no. We have 18 members from only 4 families. However, one of the reasons I did the interview was to get some exposure for our group. I’m encouraged by the number of my neighbors who visit this site. If any of you want more info on our group, email or lookup our facebook group.

    Take care,
    Ken Riddle

  • Neon Genesis

    Why can’t they just have the graduation at school if they can’t find a location?

  • Sarah

    I am of the opinion that the church should provide the space free of charge for something like a graduation. After all, this is our children, right? This is something that matters. It seems like the kind of thing where the sincere believers would want to be charitable.

    But yes, in no way is the message from the pastor acceptable, and covering the cross would be very much desirable.

    One does wonder whatever happened to their previous venue.

  • John O

    This discussion is ridiculous. What gives the AU the right to determine where a school holds a graduation. My 2 daughters graduated at Woodstock First Baptist. Both ceremonies were just that, High School graduations, there was no religious agenda or speeches. I did not see the Pastor at either graduation. The BIG CROSS did not seem to influence anyone. If covering it up will silence the “Politically Correct Pansies” then by all means cover it. The Schools do not have the capacity to house a graduation indoors or outdoors. The fact that the church only charges $2000 compared to the $40,000 Cobb Civic Center charges is reason enough to have it at FBCW. The school budgets are strained enough, having to add more cost because of the AU is ridiculous. I have had enough of everyone trying to be politically correct and in turn forcing their agenda on others. JUST GO AWAY

  • Robert Holland

    I am atheist as well, and I think all of you are a bunch of damn retards. I graduated in that very church in 1996, so for one thing it hasn’t been solely “tradition” since 2005. Get your story straight. I don’t go to church to worship any gods or to impress anyone. I do however go to church to see my daughter sing in her school’s xmas chorus concert, and to attend my friends’ weddings. Tolerance can go a long way if you take your head out of your ass for long enough to realize that atheists aren’t the majority. Get over yourselves, get a life, and stop ruining other people’s lives. Please. Religion alone is doing enough of that all on it’s own.

  • David Westrick

    I would like to take this opportunity to discuss this issue of having a graduation at a Church in the metro Atlanta area. I do understand the opinion that you believe that there should be seperation between Church and State. I do not hold that same opinion but you are certainly entitled to that same opinion just as I am entitled to mine.

    The point I think everyone is missing is that it really isn’t about how adults feel, it isn’t about how Atheist feel or how Christians feel. In this particular instance it is about the Graduation Class of 2011. It is about the Children/Young Adults.

    I happen to have a Daughter who attends a Cherokee County High School and I happen to be a Memeber of the First Baptist Church of Woodstock. Now many of you will stop reading at this point, but you might find that my opinion is not unfounded and actually is in consideration of all persons, no matter what there religious belief or non belief.

    I do want to point out that Church’s through out Metro Atlanta have been the place of many graduations since the early 80’s. So the comment that it is not a tradition is unfounded. I actually attended Pebblebrook High School in Cobb County and half of the schools in Cobb COunty used Roswell Street Baptist Church and the other half used the Cobb Civic Center.

    But the reason for my speaking out is based on a conversation my 18 year old daughter had with a friend of ours that is Jewish. They actually had an in-depth conversation about why would it be offensive to her (the jewish woman) to have graduation at a Church of any sort other than a Jewish Synagoge. It was actually very eye opening to my daughter to understand the different beliefs of another religion.

    But my Daughter also made a very eye opening and complying argument for the use of a Church or any large facility able to handle a large crowd. She told the lady, why are all these people worried about it being a Church, there is nothing said about it being a Church during the Ceremony, but if it isn’t there where can it be held.

    It isn’t fair to me (my Daughter) or any of the other Graduating Class to not be able to have our family at our graduation. All she wants is for her family to see her accomplishments, the accomplishment of Graduating from High School. At my oldest daughters graduation we had 22 family members actually attend the ceremony.

    Isn’t that what this is really all about, about our Children having there family with them to see them Graduate which most likely at this young stage of there life is the most significant accomplishment to date. Here are a bunch of adults discussing what should happen to Graduating Seniors in Cherokee County. Is it about us or the Children.

    If the Americans United for Separation of Church and State want to continue to fight and have the Gradutions moved from a Church then that is there right under the Constitution of the United States, but what they are really missing is the real purpose of Graduation. The purpose of celebrating such a wonderful event with your family.

    At this time the Cherokee County Schools are saying that only two family memebers will be allowed to attend graduation if it isn’t in a venue of the size of First Baptist Woodstock. All of us Adults need to think about the Children and quit worrying about our own political and religious agenda’s.

    Thanks for your time.

  • Holly

    My graduation from Woodstock High was held in this church. I am non-religious, and even with my dislike of huge mega churches, I still had no problem getting my diploma in one. I don’t know about the rest of you protesters, but I don’t suddenly want to worship god every time I’m in a church or see a cross. Yes they can and should cover the cross up, but saying that them pushing relgion on you because there’s a cross there is a reason not to hold graduation there is just ridiculous. There is nothing in the Constitution that says it’s illegal to have a cross or whatever up when not everyone believes in the symbol. And i also have never heard anything about the pastor speaking before the graduation, so maybe check your facts better. I think it’s completely outrageous that an organization that has no ties whatsoever to this community is deciding to step in and be the big boss on our community’s matters. I also think it’s ridiculous that people are so completely offended by places of worship just because they choose not to worship that they simply cannot step inside them for a graduation ceremony. It is the biggest, most cost effective venue in the county, and it allows students to be able to invite as many people as they want. Considering the fact that Cherokee County is one of the most overcrowded school districts in the state and that my graduating class alone pushed 500, that means we need a large venue and something like our football field and stadiums would not be big enough. Most of you aren’t even the ones graduating or going to a graduation there, so why are you even involved? I say take a vote from students and parents. This is a democracy, the ones involved should choose, not people who aren’t a part of the community. Organizations like AU are only around to make money off of communities they can push a lawsuit into.

  • Robert Holland

    Oh, I’m a former Jehovah Witness too. And I’m on the school’s side as a parent, a voter, and a local taxpayer. I will be at the school board meeting on January 21, 2011. Too many people are too sensitive to live in a social environment. Friendly atheist my ass. You’re like a dog that’s chained to a tree trying to piss on the fire hydrant instead!

  • Ian

    It’s atheists like you people that give us a bad name. It’s a facility, nothing more. It’s safe to assume that you don’t attend Etowah is it not?
    I’d appreciate it if you’d let us, the student body that actually goes to the school, decide where we want our ceremonies to take place. We’re fine with it. The seating is spacious and cheap. If the pastor wants to come out and give a shout out to come to church, I’m fine with that. I’m not going to do it but hey, you know?
    Unlike atheists that find something like that enormously offensive, I’m actually secure in what I believe, so I don’t care.

  • Concerned parent

    It is a shame that your hatred of religion, particularly Christianity, so blinds you to the desire of children and their families to celebrate a momentous occasion. Lighten up, and appreciate that there are institutions that are willing to provide affordable facilities to cash strapped school sytems.

  • Elizabeth

    I live in the Cherokee County school district so I know more of the facts than you people who claim that “I’m sure there’s other venues” and other claims. I am an atheist and have never thought twice about my graduation taking place in a church. The matter does not affect any of you people whatsoever so mind your own business. All the other potential venues in the area are far more expensive than the church. The church costs about 2,000 to rent. Cobb Civic Center costs 40,000. FBCW also seats more people than any of the other venues. It would be one thing if they were forcing us to convert to Christianity or wear a cross necklace around our necks in order to graduate, but they’re not. It is simply a building that provides an expansive amount of room and is cheap to rent out.
    I am an atheist for many years, and I have no issue with graduation being held at our local church. Now, if AU wants to supply the extra tax dollars for us to move our location to a venue that is 38,000 dollars more, then be my guest. If they’re not willing to do so, then they need to quit whining about issues that don’t affect them whatsoever. For the past 18 years of my life, I’ve been preparing for this day that I can walk across the stage and finally grab my diploma. I want all of my family there. I want all of my friends there. I want everyone who I care about to be there for this memorable moment in my life. If we have to move to a smaller location or stay in the school gym, we will be severely limited in the number of people we can invite. At the church there is no limit on the amount of people who we can invite.

  • Meredith

    In 2001 Rabbi Lebow was asked to speak at Walton’s baccalaureate ceremony in the Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church … but pastor Randy Mickler banned him from speaking. Regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof) there’s definite hypocracy at play. For those people who are adamantly pro church graduations … well, if there was a mega-synogogue that could accommodate 5,000 people would that be an acceptable venue? I would suspect not. My daughter’s graduation is at the KSU convocation center — which is a perfect site. I don’t want to see any religious symbols — mine or yours — in her graduation pictures.

  • Cherokee County Community Organizing Catholic

    It is amazing how “constitutionally dumb” we Americans have become, and that includes being so dumb that we cannot even recognize the AU for who they are and what they are REALLY ALL ABOUT, including their bullish threats and ridiculous claims. So dumb, that we’ve gotten to the point where a group like the AU (which at the core, is nothing more than a 2nd rebirth of the American Communist Party led by a “paper Reverend” who is really an atheist at heart) can continue to disingenously use the stretched “Separation of Church and State” reasoning (which, for the record, is not part of the Constitution and First Amendment) to further their anti-Christian and pro-communistic agenda.

    So let’s look at the facts and the history regarding “Separation of Church and State.” Two situations…Situation one is the current situation in Cherokee County, GA, where graduation ceremonies are held in the spacious First Baptist Woodstock Auditorium – a place due to it’s expansiveness, can house graduation ceremonies for soon to be six high schools and can do so without weather cancellation, ticketing limitation issues while keeping rental costs low. Situation two is where a person is tortured and killed for holding religious beliefs.

    Which one do you think represents the evil that our first amendment was meant to prohibit?

    Can we all now see how this perverted twisting and misunderstanding of the concept of “separation of church and state” that is going on here? Groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State laud Thomas Jefferson and JFK for stating that there is an “absolute separation” between church and state. However, their intent is not an honorable defense of the TRUE FIRST AMENDMENT interpretation – but rather, one where they have used this misguided phrase to justify a purging of all things religious from the public domain.

    A public high school graduation being held in a comfortable church auditorium? Not if the ACLU and the AU have their way!

    C’mon people, are we that stupid to believe that the concept of separation of church and state was meant to prohibit graduations in comfortable church auditoriums? Was the genesis of this idea to clean up government lawns from being overcrowded with religious monuments?

    No! These things are all examples of living everyday life in a society where people have religious beliefs. Rather, our founders were trying to prohibit the kind of punishment for religious beliefs like what happened to Michael Sattler.

    Michael was a leader of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th Century, and held several beliefs that were not shared by the ruling government of his day. In America, our Constitution protects the right to hold beliefs that are not shared by the mainstream. This was not the case in Michael’s day.

    And so because of his beliefs concerning baptism, he was arrested as a heretic. He was tried and convicted. His sentence for holding these beliefs? Death.

    But he was not sentenced to an ordinary death. His tongue was cut out to prevent him from giving his testimony during his burning. Flesh from his body was torn with red hot tongs. He was drug by a wagon across the town. And this torture was concluded by being burned at the stake.

    All of this – because of his beliefs. This is why we have religious freedom in America. We do not have religious freedom so that our religious history can be sandblasted from government buildings. The First Amendment was not meant to force graduation ceremonies to be held in crowded gymnasiums rather than a comfortable church auditorium. Our Constitution was not meant to prohibit politicians, who possess Christian beliefs, from using that moral base to enact sound laws for this nation.

    This type of thinking is a mockery to the real harm inflicted on our ancestors because of their religious beliefs.

    Groups like the ACLU and AU will argue, “But it’s a slippery slope. Once you allow graduations to be held in comfortable plush chairs in an air-conditioned auditorium, then you are only one step away from dragging a person through town behind a wagon, tearing his body with fire hot tongs, and burning his body at the stake.”

    The lunacy of this comparison is self evident. But there is a slippery slope involved here. And that is this – by following the road the ACLU and AU would have us follow, we will end up being a nation whose children know nothing of our religious heritage, and where all things religious are banned from the public square because they might offend someone.

    It’s time to remember what religious freedom is really all about. And to finalize, I think the 18 year old self-professed Atheist student (Elizabeth) who posted her beliefs in this blog about this situation has perhaps the most profound and telling assessment of what the right thing to do is, and what the AU is REALLY ALL ABOUT.

    I’ll be at the January 20th meeting using my first amendment rights and my free speech to speak at board meetings. And although I send my children to a private Catholic High School, and may be seen as someone who has no skin in this game, I will not be fooled by the AU nor intimidated from speaking out and standing up for what is right in this situation. I am looking forward to the fight against the cowardly, Godless AU Organization and in helping facilitate the people of Cherokee County GA to fight this battle and win !!!

    In the words of a famous president, “Bring it on !!!

  • Stephanie Vigario

    okay fist off half of the people commenting on this site have NEVER been to Cherokee County High Schools. Well I graduated from Cherokee High School and if u have ever been to that school you will know there is no room to hold a graduation ceremony even in the gym or auditorium. If the School was to have it in either of those students would most likely be allowed to bring two family members to graduation. I am not an atheist, but i do not go to church often and graduating in the church had no affect on me. Students are there to get their diploma and thats it who cares where it is held.

  • Anonymous

    For those of you who do not live in Cherokee County, GA–I suggest you do a little more research on the topic before jumping to harsh assumptions that there are plenty of other venues at which these high schools can hold their graduation ceremonies. This church has provided the Cherokee County Board of Education with a spacious auditorium for a fraction of the price of what it would cost at another local building. Instead of creating a completely unnecessary argument of these ceremonies violating the idea of “separation of church and state,” you should find better things to do with your time and money. Let THESE children and their families who live in Cherokee County decide, not a Washington-based group who does not see the personal reality of the situation. This is simply a facility that will be used for a short period of time in order to provide these children and their families a place in which they may all be accommodated. It’s issues like these that make me question the relative sanity of these interest groups taking place in Washington; stop creating unnecessary lawsuits and find solutions for the ones that take greater precedent over our country.

  • Anonymous

    I live in Cherokee County and I go to Creekview High School. The people in Washington who are opposed to this don’t realize that there seriously isn’t another place that the graduations could be held. Cherokee County is not a very built up area at all. This Church is easily the biggest building in Cherokee County. Considering the low cost of the Church and how many people would be able to attend, it’s a great place to hold it. It has absolutely nothing to do with forcing one’s beliefs upon someone else. Considering the next available place to rent out would cost $25,000 to $30,000 more per year, AND it would limit the number of people that could attend makes me want to keep it at the Church. I have a big family who would love to come to my graduation. I don’t want to have to tell them that they can’t come anymore because some people in Washington say it’t not fair to the people who aren’t Christian. Having our graduation at the Church isn’t forcing our beliefs on to anyone. I think that it should be up to the students to decide where the graduation should be held. I think that 95% would agree that the Church is the best place. Again, the people in Washington have no right to think that they know our community better than we do. Its our County, its our life that we have been building, and its our graduation.

  • ES

    I graduated here and they cover the cross with a screen and take out anything religious and have no religious affiliations in the ceremony so please get your facts right. It is a great space that allows the entire family to attend the graduation and I would be very disappointed if because of a limited number of tickets I would not be able to see my sister graduate. Also the first amendment does not state a complete separation of church and state. For example, there are religious groups at school who are allowed to pray and sing praise at the school so why would it then be unconstitutional to have a school graduation in a church building. It is the same thing.