School board: Graduations to stay at church
by Kristal Dixon
kdixon@cherokeetribune.com
January 21, 2011 12:00 AM | 6855 views | 17 17 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Cherokee County school board meeting on Thursday night was at capacity as whether to keep high school graduations at First Baptist Church of Woodstock was decided. The board unanimously voted to keep the ceremonies at the church.<br>Cherokee Tribune/Kristal Dixon
The Cherokee County school board meeting on Thursday night was at capacity as whether to keep high school graduations at First Baptist Church of Woodstock was decided. The board unanimously voted to keep the ceremonies at the church.
Cherokee Tribune/Kristal Dixon
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The Cherokee County school board is keeping graduation ceremonies for Cherokee County high school students at First Baptist Church of Woodstock even if it means a legal battle.

The board on Thursday night unanimously voted to continue holding its graduations at the county's largest facility, leading to standing ovations.

It was a packed house for the meeting, as the historic Canton High School school board auditorium surpassed its maximum capacity of 225 people. Some spectators waited outside when they were unable to sit inside the auditorium.

Students, parents, principals and local elected officials gathered to witness the board take a stand on whether it should risk a lawsuit on the grounds holding graduations in a religious facility violates the U.S. Constitution's Establishment clause.

School board members heard the pleas of the community, which were frequently interrupted with thunderous cheers and applause form the audience.

Twelve people spoke in favor of using the church, the majority of which were students from county high schools. No one spoke against.

Chase Chitwood, an 18-year-old senior at Cherokee High School, said the school district "should have no fear of this lawsuit."

Chase, who said no student or parent is "forced into a religious ceremony" by attending graduation, said using the church saves the district a great deal of money.

He added students "feel our rights have been violated" as the point of a view of a few people - those opposed to ceremonies at the church - could determine the fate of the majority.

Parents also expressed their opinions about where their children should graduate.

Darleen Prem of Woodstock, a parent of a Woodstock High School senior who is graduating in May, told the board the parents supporting graduations at the church come from all different stripes.

"We are people of all faiths and non-faiths," she said.

Ms. Prem has been one of few parents who've been using Facebook to rally supporters through pages such as "Cherokee County Parents Against Moving Graduation" and "Keep Cherokee County Graduations at FBCW."

She was joined at the podium during her speech by Anthony Cammarata, a Cherokee High School graduate who formed the group Help Us Stop the Harassment of Cherokee County.

The board was compelled to make a decision as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, has threatened litigation if it doesn't find a secular location for the ceremonies.

The AU contends conducting public high school graduations at a place of worship violates the First Amendment.

Its questioning of where the graduation ceremonies are held began last year with a complaint from someone who attended Sequoyah High School's ceremony in May 2009.

County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo recommended the board keep the graduations at the church not only because of its ability to seat any and everyone who shows up, but also because of its low cost to the district.

Petruzielo said, based on his personal experience of attending graduation ceremonies each year, "the eyes of the members of the audience are transfixed" on their children or grandchildren receiving diplomas, not on any religious symbols in the sanctuary.

The district pays the church $2,000 for each school's ceremony at the 7,000-seat facility, which it began using in 2005.

The district staff reported on secular sites in metro Atlanta as well as the county's high schools as possible venues for the ceremonies.

None of the alternate sites had the capacity, comparable costs and the high number of parking needed to rival that of the Woodstock church. Also, some of the venues weren't available during the district's scheduled graduations, which are on May 27 and 28.

School board members said they're more than willing to keep the graduations at the church.

Board member Kim Cochran of Free Home said if she felt there was a violation of a student's constitutional rights, she wouldn't vote to keep the graduations at the church.

"I don't believe it, and I have not believed it," she said.

Board member Mike Chapman of Canton, who noted he was having a John Boehner moment and getting emotional, said he watched both his sons graduate at the church, and it was a great experience.

He added "there's no way I'd vote to not allow that to happen" to other families.

Rob Usher, one of three newly elected school board members sworn into office at the meeting's start, called the church an "awesome" facility and it's "great" the district can use it.

New board member Robert Wofford added it was the board's responsibility to use the best, most cost-efficient space there is for the district.

He also reiterated that for him, the issue is not about religion.

"I'm not voting for a church or against a church," he said.

School board attorney Tom Roach of Canton, who's offered to defend the district's use of the church pro bono, said he feels comfortable defending it as no clear authority has been decided on either side of the case.

He also said he's "very proud" the community focused on the issue of saving money rather than dragging religion into the debate.

Brandon Roberts, a Cherokee High School student who has been rallying his peers, said he was "delighted" with the board's decision.

He would have been "sad" if the district had voted any other way.

After the meeting, Mrs. Prem said she was ecstatic and relieved by the board's decision. Parents and community members rallied behind the board, she said, because they resented an outside organization coming into Cherokee to force its hand.

"I'm so thrilled I can't even put it into words," she said.
Comments
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dijitz
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January 25, 2011
"Would it matter to you if FBCW was also getting preferential treatment by the board for allowing the graduations to be held there?"

Well that depends....define the "preferential treatment" you are suggesting.

But to answer your question, it would not change my opinion that widespread collusion between the government and the church does not exist.

There are many anti-religion folks who exaggerate being offended in order to serve an agenda.

Ironically, that agenda appears to be to force the rest of society into their way of thinking.

anonymous
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January 23, 2011
dijitz,

Would it matter to you if FBCW was also getting preferential treatment by the board for allowing the graduations to be held there?
dijitz
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January 23, 2011
I am almost shocked...but not quite, to read some of these comments. Have any of you anti-religion folks even been to one of these graduations?

For the record, like some of you apparently, I am not a christian. Unlike you, I do not go out of my way to feign being offended to further an anti-christian agenda.

Whatever happened to "live and let live"?

I have personally attended several graduations at this church for friends and family members. There is no religious message whatsoever.

Even if there had been, I am mature enough to know that it doesn't apply to me.

I cannot think of any situation or any time in my life where the government has tried to force me to practice any religion.

This "persecution" you feel is completely in your head.

I am quite secure in my "non-beliefs". The rest of you are free to practice any religion you care to. Why should I care?

THIS is the beauty of the freedoms we have.

If the mere sight of crosses, stars, crescents, etc offends some of you so deeply....I truly feel very sorry for you.

I think this speaks much more to your own insecurities than to any sactions of the government.

Where was your "outrage" at the public meeting? Much easier to take jabs from the comfort of your keyboard than to express any legitimate concerns!

Bravo to the Cherokee County School Board (for once!).
anonymous
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January 22, 2011
Doug-

I heard that mentioned by the attorney. Bad legal argument; you don't have to enter the building, and you certainly don't have to have a pastor welcome you to join the church via video message.

Against AU-

Nobody wants to make a "strike" against God and Christianity. But, perhaps you might be more sensitive to non-Christians. You can't send them to the back of the bus.

Treena-

Allowing the majority to run roughshod over the minority is exactly why AU should sue. This is exactly what civil rights were about.

L. Schulz
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January 22, 2011
I'm having the hardest time understanding the big deal over this. I'm not even sure why this is an issue! Someone asked if I would feel it's ok if it were held in a Mosque or Synagogue. The answer is yes!!

This all started with a Jewish girl getting offended. So, I presume she has NO friends who are Christian, right? So I guess she'll never attend a wedding for any friends, right? She'll not go to a funeral for a friend? Right? And do you all feel the same way too? Do you not attend weddings for friends in churches? How is this different? It's NOT!!

Religion isn't being preached at graduation. This is a time to see my child accept the actions of hard work! His and MINE! And I want all of his family there. How dare a student have to choose between his/her parents! Yes, that could happen if the ceremony has to be held at schools or elsewhere!

And for those saying the church is intentionally low balling?? Well fine and dandy! You do realize it's YOUR tax dollars that pay for this! I'm glad that the school board is considerate of my dollars!
anonymous
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January 22, 2011
While it was a foregone conclusion that the school board would vote to continue graduations at FBCW, I was a little surprised at the sanctimonious, arrogant attitude of many of the attendees and speakers.

To the teen girl who noted that the Holy Bible is used to administer an oath - it is not a mandatory fixture, one can affirm without it.

To the older gentleman who suggested a separate graduation ceremony for those who did not care to attend at FBCW - that is the problem we are trying to solve; we don't need to tear the community apart. Or do you also recommend separate water fountains for Christians and non-Christians?

For those lay scholars of Constitutional law, who spout crackpot theories using Thomas Jefferson's name - remember the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which states "...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

And to all those who have spoken for graduation at FBCW, remember that this is a Constitutional republic, not a direct democracy, where the mob rule you have created takes us - perhaps just a small step - towards theocracy.
Doug Harmon
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January 21, 2011
You're free not to attend. There's your separation...problem solved. How do you feel about public roads that pass a church with...heaven forbid...a cross out front. Should we build a wall?

We have real issues in this country...like the fact we're bankrupt and yet people want to argue over a cross spotting, gay's in the military, and new entitlement programs.

Turn off dancing with the stars folks a pay attention before you have no country left.
Against AU
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January 21, 2011
I am so very proud that the school board decided to keep graduation ceremonies in the Church.

I am also so very dissapointed to read the comments of so many misguided people.

As far as a Mosque or Synagogue goes, if there was one large enough in this area, only a narrow minded anti-God person would object to the graduation services being held in a Church.

No one's rights to Freedom of Religion are being trampled on. No government agency is attempting to Establish a Religion.

If you are intimidated by going into a Church, Mosque, or any place of worship to watch your child graduate, then you have problems that no lawsuit is going to solve. If you are intimidated by the sight of a Church, a Nativity scene, a plaque of The Ten Commandments, a Cross, or any religious symble, then you have problems that no lawsuit is going to solve, or that haveing a graduation ceremony at any location is going to solve.

This controversy is not about money, or a suitable place for a graduation. This controversy is about a group, along with some individuals, who want to make a strike against God and Christianity, and this is the only way they can think of to make that strike.

No matter the outcome, if it goes to Court. God will survive, and so will His people. They have since the beginning, and will do so for eternity.

God is real, people. Filing lawsuits and denying Him do not make it so.

I am not going to preach Hellfire and Brimstone, but if I attempted to go against God the way some of you are doing, I would be scared to go to sleep at night.

God's will will be done, and no man can change that, nor can any judge or court change it.
CCSDteacher
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January 21, 2011
Would those who argue that the venue doesn't matter feel the same if we were talking about a synagogue or mosque instead of a church?
Tired Taxpayer
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January 21, 2011
Concerned CCSD parent is right. Dr P took the McGowan issue behind closed doors to keep it quiet. Call your board members and let them know your feelings. And yes, his personnel status is my concern because I am paying his salary.
Joe Zamecki
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January 21, 2011
This just underscores the ultimate dishonesty in religion. If they want their kids to attend church, they can do that. If they want their kids to be educated, they can do that.

But trying to combine the two is just religion riding piggy-back on something that's actually legitimate.

This is just another reason why religion is a scam. No one proves it faster than Christians in large groups.
coleykga
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January 21, 2011
I can tell you honestly that it is not what the building represents at all. The church does not "lowball" on purpose...I give you the job of finding a building that holds this capacity, allows all family members to attend without problem and costs..not the same..but "LESS" then what FBCW charges. I am secure enough in my beliefs that a building does not bother me....if a building a such a threat to anyone that they cannot focus on the person graduating and instead are focusing on where they are, then they must not be to secure in what they feel and believe. No religious ceremonies go on, no religion plays a part at all what so ever during the graduating ceremony, if FBCW wanted to push its agenda, they don't need a school graduation to do so...they are the biggest building in the entire county and have one of the biggest charity runs each year, they don't need a graduation to get their message out. Its a beautiful building with more than enough seating, comfortable seating, much better than any gym or football field. I challenge anyone to find a better building at less the cost, and within easy short drive time. Don't be so ignorant and closed minded, its a building, God does not live in it, and any person will tell you that.
Cherokee Resident
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January 21, 2011
Why is Mike McGowan's personnel status any of your concern? I have confidence that the board will do what they see is in the best interest in the school system. Even if you don' like the outcome remember yourself and your fellow citizens elected them!
Eric James
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January 21, 2011
I pledge a donation of $1,000 to America United for the Separation of Church and State if they take this back water hick town to court.

My bonus is here, just in time.
Concerned CCSD Paren
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January 21, 2011
Who cares about where graduation ceremonies are held in Cherokee County? What happened to Mike McGowan? His is a disgrace to our county and the most horrible role model for our students. The Cherokee County Board of Education is so glad that the media’s attention is on the subject of where graduation should be held and not on the outcome of the decision about whether or not to fire Mike McGowan. The Board needs to face the facts and know that the parents of Cherokee County students want McGowan FIRED! What’s the verdict on that one Dr. P.?

Treena Parish
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January 21, 2011
As a graduate of Cherokee High School (1989) I am so proud of the school board's decision. Allowing the minority to rule the majority is a huge mistake and the Board recognized this with their decision. Good Job!
Freedom of Choice
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January 21, 2011
Isn't all this talk of saving money and unity sweet! Of course, this same "building" is called "God's House" every Sunday but the same people who call it that and faithfully attend are quick to expunge that talk when it comes to the pure mission of "saving the school system money." Funny, in a room full of Christians, not one person could stand up and be honest about why they want to keep it in a church. But what do you expect here in the Bible belt of the deep south? Maybe one day FBCW will be honest enough with the community to admit that they purposely low-ball the cost to make sure the community walk through their doors since they can't get them there on Sunday.
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