Written by Don Byrd

Whether or not a religious space may be used to host a public school graduation is not a black and white question. Courts look at all of the circumstances surrounding the location to determine whether or not the use of a church would lead a reasonable observer to conclude that it is an official endorsement of religion in violation of the Constitution.

Applying that standard, a federal court in South Carolina has ruled unconstitutional Greeneville County’s use of a chapel for graduation ceremonies. The judge emphasized that all of the surroundings at the graduation setting played a role in his decision.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

First, regardless of the school district’s purpose in selecting the chapel for the location of the ceremony, the Court has already determined that the inclusion of two school-endorsed Christian prayers at the ceremony violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.The fact that the district chose to hold the ceremony (which included school-endorsedChristian prayers) in a clearly Christian place of worship in the presence of religious iconography, including, among other things, a cross on the podium and eight stained glass windows depicting Christian imagery, only further created a likelihood that observers would perceive the district as endorsing a particular set of religious beliefs. There has been no showing that the chapel was the only available venue for the graduation ceremony, and in view of the overall circumstances of the event, there can be no doubt that the setting in which the ceremony occurred conveyed a message of religious endorsement and created a likelihood that the school-aged children would perceive a link between church and state.

There may be circumstances in which courts will allow a graduation ceremony to take place in a religious building, but as the judge explained, unless there is no other available space, the prominence and placement of religious imagery can create a situation that improperly entangles this important school function with religion.