Atheist group takes issue with school’s annual baccalaureate ceremony

Posted at 10:33 PM, Jul 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-31 03:11:01-04

NORTON SHORES, Mich. — It's been an annual tradition at one West Michigan school for half a century, but now a group is taking offense, saying it's violating the U.S. Constitution.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation—a self-described atheist and agnostic group based out of Madison, Wisc.—is taking issue with the Mona Shores school district's annual baccalaureate graduation ceremony, arguing it's not a separation of church and state.

The group sent a letter to school administrators in June raising concerns with the school's apparent involvement in a primarily religious ceremony, stating they had been "contacted by a concerned resident" worried the event was being held in the school's auditorium and "teachers and staff members attended the event."

You can read the full letter here: Freedom from Religion Foundation Complaint Letter

"I was shocked," said Dave Peden, superintendent for the Mona Shores district. "I was just surprised with a concern like that, a concerned resident would not have just called us—we get calls and concerns all the time—and then we could've just addressed it with that individual."

A baccalaureate is traditionally a religious event which includes prayer and worship, and Peden says the district has hosted the ceremony, put on by Forest Park Covenant Church, in the high school's auditorium, for at least the past 50 years without objection.

"The letter talked about they were concerned because some of our staff members attended. Our staff members can certainly attend a religious event on a Sunday, whether it's one of ours or somewhere else," he said.

But with in-school sign-up sheets and a mass email sent out about the ceremony this past year, Rebecca Markert, a senior staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the school's apparent involvement could lead people to believe the vent is sponsored by the school.

Speaking with FOX 17 by phone, Markert expressed concerns similar to what were stated in the letter sent to the school district. In the letter, she wrote, "If a public school does not officially sponsor or organize the baccalaureate service, there still exists a danger that a reasonable observer would conclude the service is school sponsored."

"The school's apparent role in hosting and supporting attendance at this baccalaureate causes reasonable graduating seniors and parents to conclude that the district endorses the religious messages espoused at these services."

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has about 20,000 members nationwide and about 500 in Michigan, and the biggest area of complaints the group deals with involves religion in schools, according to Markert.

Peden says he understands the concerns and admits the mass email might've given the wrong impression. In response to the complaint letter, the district responded with its own letter with a plan to minimize the "aura of affiliation" for next year:

  • Add language disclaiming any official endorsement of advertising for the ceremony.
  • Future email invitations will come from the organization running the ceremony and not the high school.
  • Make sure the orchestra students know it is a voluntary performance, if in fact they perform.
  • If a school employee is chosen to be a speaker, the schools will not refer to his/her title with the district.

You can read the full response from Mona Shores Public Schools here: Mona Shores Public Schools Response Letter

"I think we have a better understanding now," Peden said." We certainly are going to have a planning meeting before we get into next year's, and make sure we follow all of the guidelines we've been informed about.. They had some concerns, we agree with some of those, have addressed them, and really hope this issue is over."

In wake of the district's response, Markert said the foundation is still "corresponding with the complainant but so far think the steps taken are appropriate."

Markert could not confirm the complainant's identity, since all complaints are filed anonymously. But she did say the person in question lives in the Muskegon County area.

Peden says for now the plan is to still hold the annual event at the high school auditorium.