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.