Girls State conflicts with Catholic Mass

The last few months have seen a few stories about children managing conflicts with their religious beliefs. There was the story about the Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston that won its regional championship to advance to the boys basketball state semifinals but couldn’t play because the game was scheduled during their Sabbath. There was the story about a school run by the Society of Saint Pius X that forfeited a baseball game rather than compete against a girl, in violation of their beliefs about treating women with respect.

And now we have another story. One of the challenges in covering these issues is that usually we’re dealing with minority religious groups whose views may seem silly to outsiders. Reporters must navigate that issue by respectfully covering both the children who are standing up for their religious values in the face of popular or formal opposition but also respectfully covering the views of those who think the children are wrong.

This story in a local Florida paper called the Daily Commercial was an interesting read. Reporter Theresa Campbell told the story of an Umatilla teenager who said she was forced to choose between her Catholic faith and being a delegate to Florida Girls State, a leadership program for teenaged girls:

“I was shocked. This is basically discrimination,” said Margeaux (Mar-go) Graham, 16, a junior at Umatilla High School, who was told that she would not be allowed to attend Sunday Mass while Girls State is hosted June 15-23 at Florida State University in Tallahassee, even though a Catholic cathedral is across the street from FSU.

Graham’s mother, Mary, offered to make the trip to escort her daughter to church.

“The girls are not allowed to leave our program for any reason,” said Robin Briere, department secretary-treasurer of the American Legion Auxiliary, who noted it would be an insurance liability to allow any of the 300 delegates to leave the premises.

Briere said a non-denominational Sunday service is provided for the delegates.

Though my family is not Catholic, my siblings and I have faced this issue numerous times. We are Lutherans who don’t do non-denominational worship and we believe that Sunday Divine Service is the most important part of our week and takes precedence over other activities. I have had numerous employers who do not understand or respect this. I always try to make it clear before I take a job that this is my religious practice. When my brother was at the Air Force Academy, it was difficult for him to explain to his supervisors that the evangelical Protestant service offered on campus would not satisfy his religious needs, for instance. In a way, I’m surprised we don’t see more stories about this, if my own family’s experience is any indication.

The story gave the perspective of the student according to the student and her religious community:

As a faithful Catholic, Graham said it would be a mortal sin for her not to attend Mass, as it’s her religious and moral obligation to attend Mass every single Sunday.

“Missing Mass is not an option,” added Jackie Smart, director of religious education at St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church in Eustis, where Graham is a parishioner.

“If you’re Catholic, you’re obliged to gather with your fellow Catholics on Sundays to celebrate Mass and it’s not something that we can choose not to participate in, if you’re an active Catholic,” Smart said. “If you really believe what our faith teaches, there would be no way to keep you from Mass and that’s the way Margeaux feels…”

When the young woman was told she couldn’t go to Mass, a friend of the family who is commander of the American Legion Post in her hometown proposed allowing a priest to come to Girls State to celebrate Mass for the Catholic delegates. That idea was rejected.

The perspective of the program’s leaders is also included. We’re told Briere says religion has never been an issue for the program:

“We are a non-denominational program and intentionally keep religion out of our program out of respect for the 300 girls that come from many different faiths,” she said. “We set aside time on Sunday morning, from our very busy schedule, to allow each girl to honor her faith silently and the girls collectively put a program together to honor all faiths.”

The Sunday service is written and executed by the delegates, she said, adding it’s something that they enjoy doing.

“The majority of our schools in Girls State are Catholic schools that support our program,” Briere said. “And we’ve never at one time had a Catholic school demand that we have a priest come into our program to celebrate Mass during Girls State.”

“I’m just amazed at the uproar over this,” added Briere, who also is Catholic by faith. “It’s not like she’s forced to go to this program and we’re denying her religious rights. … What has surprised me the most, through all of this, was having the Umatilla American Legion commander call and demand that we had to do it.”

Briere said she does not feel less of a Catholic when she misses Mass while being involved in leading Girls State.

At this point, it may have been nice to have an outside expert weigh in to explain the difference in approach between some Catholics and others or why an interfaith program or silent prayer time might be neither sufficient nor allowable for some religious adherents.

The story goes on to explain that Miss Graham “regretfully” declined to be her local auxiliary’s delegate. A portion of her letter announcing that was quoted including what she thinks of the program’s treatment of her religious views. Briere is also given a chance to respond. Here’s how the article ends:

“I respect her religious beliefs, and certainly I share them as we’re the same faith,” Briere said. “The Catholic religion that I know is not that narrow thinking, but I do respect how she feels. I’m not disrespecting her in any way. I just feel bad that she is being put in the position to choose between the two. Unfortunately, because of this, she has lost her opportunity to go to Girl State and that cannot be changed now. She’s out of the program, and it was her choice.”

The teen said she made the decision on her own and that her parents would have been “supportive” of whatever she had chosen to do.

“My daughter is an amazing young teen,” Mary Graham said. “She is standing up for her faith.”

I love all the quotes and the length of them, allowing us to get a real sense of the actual views of the major players in this story. That this comes from a smaller local paper is also worth noting. It’s a great idea for a story, obviously, and includes more information than we expect to see in local reports.

Photo of young woman praying via Shutterstock.

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  • carl jacobs

    “We are a non-denominational program and intentionally keep religion out of our program out of respect for the 300 girls that come from many different faiths”

    If there was ever a quote that was begging for a follow-up, this is it. As in:

    1. How does “non-denominational” fit with “many different faiths?” Is the Sunday morning service synchretistic or overtly Christian?

    2. How would the presence of a priest for a private voluntary service compromise their desire to keep “religion out” of their program? There are lots of answers to this question, and none of them reflect particularly well on the people who run the program.

    carl

  • Jerry

    It’s a small item perhaps, but since I am not a Catholic I wondered if her belief accurately reflected Catholic doctrine. I looked it up http://www.cuf.org/faithfacts/details_view.asp?ffID=164 and she is indeed correct. But the story should have had a few words from the web site, a Priest or Bishop affirming her understanding.

  • Dan Crawford

    I’d also suggest that though her belief might accurately reflect Catholic doctrine and discipline, there is considerable latitude given in its application, and it would have been useful to hear from priests and others who understand that.

  • http://statenotcity.tumblr.com Paul M.

    I went through nearly the same situation when I attended Boys State in New York 3 years ago. The major difference was I am an Independent Baptist who was attending a non-denominational church at the time. My issue was that while they label these provided services as non-denominational, they are more accurately ecumenical services where in their best effort not to offend any believer of any faith, they adhere to extremely watered down, and often canned messages.Because I could not provide any sort of doctrinal statement from the church or any Baptist statement (because Baptists are fundamentally tribal with little to no central order) regarding why I wished not to attend the provided service I couldn’t seek out any other church to attend. The biggest issue this article addresses isn’t that she wasn’t allowed to seek out a mass she was willing to attend, it is that administrators in programs like Boys and Girls State have a gross misunderstanding of what non-denominational means, and how it often is more ecumenical in their practice than in private practice as well as the subsequent frustrations it puts devout believers through.

  • bob

    I’m alarmed at the calm acceptance that “religion will be provided!” the articles report. It is the approved House Blend. It is an *insurance liability* to walk across the street to the Mass?? Wow, religion outside the approved box is not just out of the program — it’s dangerous! Right up there with playing in traffic and running with scissors. I am glad, no, very glad the girl decided for Mass and not for State. I also have never met anyone who went to that organized “privilege” who recalled anything worthwhile about it. Supposed to look good on college applications though, while going to Mass faithfully likely won’t.

  • Mike O.

    From a journalistic perspective I have to give the story a solid thumbs up. Yes, both sides said things that could use some more follow-up; but as Mollie pointed out each side was given an opportunity to present her take and is quoted at length.

    People are likely going to have strong negative opinions with either the program leader or the student. But that’s because of what that person said or did and not because the author tried to railroad the reader into it.

  • Kevin

    Mike O. From a journalistic perspective, what do you understand about what serious Catholics believe about their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, and what unserious Catholics and non-Catholics believe about Catholics attending Sunday Mass? Hint it doesn’t have anything to do with preferences, voting, latitude, weighing in or judgement calls. It has to do with a simple notion generally denigrated as nonsense that is called faith. It seems to me there’s a distinct lack of tolerance for this person who wants to attend Mass for an hour.

  • Mike O.

    From a journalistic perspective, what do you understand about what serious Catholics believe about their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, and what unserious Catholics and non-Catholics believe about Catholics attending Sunday Mass?

    Kevin, from a journalist perspective do you think Sherman Hemsley is one of America’s most underrated comedic actors?

    Do you see how the term “from a journalistic perspective” doesn’t make sense in my question? It’s the same in yours. The only correlation between journalism and your question is that a journalist must understand some Catholics feel very strongly about attending Sunday Mass with other Catholics, and must accurately report that in such a story. I believe that the author of the article did both.

    Do you believe that the author did not correctly describe the student’s stance via her statements and actions? What do you think the journalist did wrong here?

  • Mary

    There are many issues that arise with this Florida Girl State Program. For Margeaux this was not just a Catholic issue. A big part of her argument was that this service was not satisfactory to serve all religious groups. We are grateful to see other faiths identifying with the problems with their program.
    Margeaux wrote a follow up letter to the ALA. You can read both of her letters at the following links. http://the-american-catholic.com/2012/05/25/go-margeaux-victorious-in-defense-of-the-eucharis/ http://the-american-catholic.com/2012/05/23/margeauxs-stand-catholic-teen-defends-her-right-to-attend-mass/

  • John Penta

    Something that strikes me, from a journalistic POV:

    Where’s there comment (or the no-comment) from the insurance carrier? Girls State is essentially blaming them, after all.

    I have a sneaking feeling that the insurance carrier, so questioned, might well be very surprised to see the coverage interpreted that way. No evidence for this, but call it a hunch.

  • Jay

    I agree with John – the nonprofit bureaucrats got challenged on something they didn’t expect to get challenged on, so they hid behind some semi-plausible excuse.

    I was also surprised this happened in Florida. I would have expected it in one of the more secular states (California comes to mind) but I would have thought this would have come up by now.

    What I would ask is: will there be leaders in the Legion who will ask during the off-season if there’s some way to be more accommodating? Or are the ones who run the event going to convince the Legion leadership that “this is just some small fringe and we can’t accommodate them without disrupting the program.”

    J

  • Asshur

    In a good story (both well treated and interesting in itself) I find only a gap. Was no catholic priest for consultation if the girl was not a bit over-scrupulous?
    IIRC if it is impossible to attend Mass one is dispensed without sin (two well known samples, the Japanese underground catholics or Bl. Charles de Foucault -a priest- who couldn’t even celebrate Mass for years)

    In this context, the fact that a church was available right across the street and -as she is a minor- an adult chaperon was willing to go with her, probably voided in her conscience the “imposibility escape hatch”, with -probably- minimal impact for the program.

    The insurance excuse, as outrageous and out of common sense as it sounds, may have some bearing in a decision to let a minor out; but -for me- only show how poor -bureucratic- managenemt this AL program has

  • Kristen

    Hmmm… I would not go into scrupulosity. This article was great because it was carefully neutral. The reader is left with the facts to mull over.

    Our family has eight kids and I have driven amazing distances (in Montana) to help my high schoolers get to the “last chance” Mass a bunch of times. I have never heard of some organization not allowing someone to walk across the street. I agree that a comment from the insurance company would have been a nice addition…BUT it also would have veered into the non-neutral journalism territory because there would be no reason for including it in the story except to discredit the Girls State coordinator.

  • Asshur

    Kristen
    I just loved the story. I simply played the devil’s advocate re. the insurance bit. On my first read I found it the lamest excuse ever uttered (and I’m sure i’m not alone in this).
    But it -esp. with minors- can be a real problem and leave you potentially open for litigation, and this is -in the current american climate- a definitive showstopper. Not that it could not be solved with goodwill and five minutes paperwork …

    Regarding scrupulosity. I was (pleasantly) surprised that the article never questioned her position regarding Sunday Mass. Or the rotound statement from the official (a layman for sure) from her parish. But the actual position of the Church is -as always- a bit more nuanced (If you really can’t make to it, it’s not your fault). And, well, the explicit exploration of the nuances in this case is just the bit I miss from the article to make it round

  • ceemac

    Hmmmm….. There are definitely some possibilities for follow up stories by the original paper or someone larger picking it up.

    For one thing this narrative does not fit into a liberal vs. conservative box or atheist vs religious.

    The American Legion is not a liberal organization from what I know. I doubt that it us hostile to religion. But I’ll hunch that it has been an advocate of the US civic religion belief in a generic God. The kind of religion that downplays differences for the sake of national unity.

    A bit of quick research and I found that the cofounder of the boys/girls state thing back in the 30′s was a prof at Loyola Chicago school of Law. Given the date I’d bet that he was Catholic. Probably not too many Protestants or Jews at Loyola then.

    I’m going to guess that a liberal atheist would not fill comfortable at a boys/girls state event. Especially in Florida.

    I wonder how the boys/girls state movement has handled these sort of requests in the past. Surely this isn’t the first.

  • ceemac

    Hmmmm….. There are definitely some possibilities for follow up stories by the original paper or someone larger picking it up.

    For one thing this narrative does not fit into a liberal vs. conservative box or atheist vs religious.

    The American Legion is not a liberal organization from what I know. I doubt that it us hostile to religion. But I’ll hunch that it has been an advocate of the US civic religion belief in a generic God. The kind of religion that downplays differences for the sake of national unity.

    A bit of quick research and I found that the cofounder of the boys/girls state thing back in the 30′s was a prof at Loyola Chicago school of Law. Given the date I’d bet that he was Catholic. Probably not too many Protestants or Jews at Loyola then.
    I’m going to guess that a liberal atheist would not fill comfortable at a boys/girls state event. Especially in Florida.
    I wonder how the boys/girls state movement has handled these sort of requests in the past. Surely this isn’t the first.

  • Maureen

    There may be other factors. For example, if the big “late Mass on Sunday night” parish was nearby and Catholic kids and schools were adjourning there; and if now the Mass times had changed or the big “late Mass on Sunday night” parish had been closed — that would make a big difference in the case. And administrators of the event wouldn’t necessarily be aware.

    This is why a lot of big events try to provide religious service info for attendees, just as many convention hotels do.

  • Julia

    Wouldn’t military chaplains from nearby bases be willing to have one of each relevant kind of chaplain perform services on that one Sunday of the year for an American Legion event?

    Having just returned from touring the U of Kansas in Lawrence, I noticed all the different buildings for all kinds of religions, including a small Catholic chapel where a wedding party was just leaving.

    Surely the Florida campus has facilities – on campus – that could be used by the visiting military chaplains? If this is such an important event, wouldn’t the chaplains be honored and anxious to provide services to these good citizen young people?

    This link shows the military installations and offices in the FLorida Panhandle.

    https://maps.google.com/maps?ie=UTF-8&q=tallahassee+military+base&fb=1&gl=us&hq=military+base&hnear=0x88ec8a5187124b53:0xebee077ad4fdb1f8,Tallahassee,+FL&ei=1zfET4igB4yQ8wT97fTACw&ved=0CAYQyBM

  • sari

    “We set aside time on Sunday morning, from our very busy schedule, to allow each girl to honor her faith silently and the girls collectively put a program together to honor all faiths.”

    And what of those faiths whose Sabbath does not fall on Sunday?

    Would love to see an article which addresses how religious observance limits students’ participation in extracurriculars and how failure to participate due to observance impacts students’ admission to desired colleges.

  • Rachel K

    Sari, I agree, particularly for Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists. Marquee sports like football almost always have their games on Friday nights, and extracurriculars that want all-day meets or conferences usually put them on Saturdays. If your religion precludes work from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, things get difficult.

  • sari

    Where you live determines how hard it is, Rachel. College Board makes automatic provisions for Sabbath-observant students to sit on non-Sabbath dates. Students in the N.E. can expect provisions to be made for extracurriculars, but move out of areas with large concentrations of observant people, and accommodations become very spotty. My daughter was effectively shut out of all UIL activities.

    One thing everyone here should know–the Catholic church is across the street from one section of a very, very large campus. When I attended FSU, St. Thomas More was about a mile from my dorm, hardly close.

    http://www.fsucatholic.org/index.cfm?load=page&page=154

    http://maps.google.com/maps?oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-beta&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=st+thomas+more+tallahassee&fb=1&gl=us&hq=st+thomas+more&hnear=0x88ec8a5187124b53:0xebee077ad4fdb1f8,Tallahassee,+FL&cid=0,0,4158568255747504804&ei=JK7FT9qUOaa02gXi0-zaAQ&sa=X&oi=local_result&ct=image&resnum=3&ved=0CA8Q_BIwAg

  • teahouse

    “compete against a girl, in violation of their beliefs about treating women with respect”

    A rather strange way of viewing this.

    To compete against a girl that wants to compete is … disrespectful?

  • Maureen

    There are various orthodox ways to take Catholic teaching about the relations between unrelated people of the opposite sex. Many SSPX groups take prudence in these matters beyond what was normal in the US in the days before Vatican II – ie, they wouldn’t have older boys and girls playing neighborhood sports together, especially not ones where contact is possible. (Slides, I guess they’re worried about.)

    Of course, no guy is allowed to play on girls’ teams (unless he can claim to be transexual or such), even though that would allow many more boys to make teams and be able to compete at a high level. So I’m not sure why girls are allowed to play on boys’ teams. Kind of a double standard.

  • teahouse

    I agree that the story shouldn’t pursued the scrupulousity route (as that would simply be passing judgement on the girl) but then it shouldn’t have simply printed her quote (“it’s a mortal sin”) without coroboration. On that point the girl is in error, though that error doesn’t affect the story in the least.

    Sari & Rachel,

    Saturday observance is a whole different ballgame. If certain events are held on that day, this cannot be simply changed because of the obligation of some.

    However, if an event already accepts a time off on Sundays, it shouldn’t mess things up like this one did.

    As for the Loyola connection: “silent prayer” just doesn’t cut it for Catholics. Anyway, the priorities in their “very busy schedule” are obvious.

  • teahouse

    Maureen,

    the point is not whether one applauds the SSPX team’s decision or not. Call it “modesty” or whatever but “disrespect” just doesn’t fit here.

    (And since the group in question isn’t Catholic, we don’t have to go into “various orthodox ways to take Catholic teaching”.)

  • sari

    High school girls, who have completed their junior year, spend an intensive week of study, working together as self-governing citizens at Auxiliary-sponsored Girls State programs in every state (with the exception of Hawaii).

    Participants learn how to participate in the functioning of their state’s government in preparation for their future roles as responsible adult citizens.

    These last lines from the article explain the rationale behind the girl-created, nondenominational service. In programs such as these, adults step back to allow teens to self-govern. Ms. Graham would have been expected to exhibit the leadership qualities necessary to create workaround, perhaps by working with other Catholic girls to effect change, rather than insist that adults provide a solution to her dilemma.

    http://www.alafl.org/POA/Girls%20State%20POA%202011-2012.pdf

    Atheists and agnostics are explicitly excluded (must be willing to take an oath of office on a Bible–see Qualifications in pdf above) from the pool of potential candidates.

  • Roberta Salamone

    Several comments above demonsrate considerable misunderstanding about Catholic doctrine. It is in fact a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. Exceptions include grave illness or physical inability to attend. In this case the cathedral is very close to the facility and her mother has offered to accompany her to Mass. She would be gone approximately one hour. The flat refusal on the part of Florida Girls’ State to accommodate her religious obligation is astounding and very disturbing.

  • Mary

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