The county school board on Thursday night unanimously delayed until its Jan. 20 meeting a vote on moving graduation ceremonies from First Baptist Woodstock.
The historic Canton High School school board auditorium was standing-room only as parents, students and concerned citizens filled the seats to hear the board debate the issue.
Since three recently elected school board members will be sworn in during the Jan. 20 meeting, the current school board said it would be better for the new lineup to have its say on changing the venue.
"They are going to be the ones who will have to deal with the long-term consequences," said outgoing school board member Stephen Bentley.
County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo added the school district would be in a better position legally if the new full board makes the decision.
The school district in October 2009 received a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticizing the district's use of the church for its graduations.
The nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based civic rights organization asked the school district to consider moving the ceremony to a secular venue.
School board attorney Tom Roach said the district for the past year has attempted a compromise with the organization, such as by agreeing to make disclaimers at the start of the ceremony. It's unlikely, he said, the church would consent to covering up crosses on display in the sanctuary.
The organization by letter last month rejected any compromise. No one from the organization addressed the board during the meeting.
"It's a difficult decision and a difficult task for the board," Roach said, adding the school district will most likely face a lawsuit if the board votes to continue using the church for its ceremonies.
Petruzielo agreed, noting if the board opts to stay with the church, "legal actions may occur."
In preparation for possible legal action, Petruzielo said, an alternate, back-up venue should be selected as a judge could issue a restraining order on the use of the church.
Moving the ceremonies from the church will affect the cost of the event, as well as how open attendance will be and how far students and their families have to travel.
The school district spends $2,000 each year to hold its ceremonies at the church, which seats between 5,000 and 6,000 people. It began using the church's auditorium during its 2004-05 school year.
Many of the county high school gyms, Roach said, have a seating capacity of between 2,000 and 3,000, and if used, would mean the number of guests allowed would be limited. Each graduating class has about 400 to 500 students.
The only area option for a larger venue than the church, he said, is the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, which would cost $70,000 to use.
The district also has looked at venues including the Northside Hospital-Cherokee Conference Center, Chattahoochee Technical College's North Metro campus, the Convocation Center at Kennesaw State University and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (CEPAC), but all have less seating than the church and costlier price tags.
CEPAC, for example, has a seating capacity of 2,750 and would cost about $40,000, according to the school district.
Another problem is reserving the space. The school district can't confirm the availability of the amphitheatre until after January. The Convocation Center at KSU isn't available for use during the school district's planned 2011 graduation dates of May 27 and 28.
Four people addressed the board about the issue during the meeting.
Rabbi Jeffrey Feinstein encouraged the board to consider the rights of non-Christians.
While the United States is governed by the religious majority, he said, "it cannot be at the peril of the minority," he said.
Feinstein added the debate isn't about Christian versus non-Christians, but about what's "morally and ethically" correct.
Greg Mikszan of Woodstock, who has a daughter at Woodstock High School set to graduate in May, said the board shouldn't allow an outside group to "impose their will on us" and "intimidate us," which garnered thunderous applause from the audience.
Leslie Cushman of Hickory Flat, a member of the National PTA board of directors, said the use of the church has allowed her extended family to see the graduation of her children. Graduation would not be a "community-shared event" if it's moved to a smaller location, she said.
Michael Thompson of Canton said moving the graduation ceremonies would be a "heinous" act and asked the board to ward off any "strong-arm" attempts by an "elitist" group.
Also during the meeting, the board approved the 2011-2012 school boundaries. The redistricting was needed to make way for the new elementary school opening in August on Univeter Road east of Canton.
The boundaries for Holly Springs Elementary, Hickory Flat Elementary and Johnston Elementary were shifted for the new school. The change would affect 1,184 students and keeps the Harmony on the Lakes neighborhood intact and in the new school's boundary.
The board also approved naming the new elementary school as Indian Knoll Elementary School with firebirds as its mascot and blue, gold and green as the school colors.