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A Minnesota teen is calling on his school district to stop holding graduation in a megachurch
"Grace Church has a long history of making derogatory, public statements against the LGBTQ+ community," wrote sophomore student Eli Frost
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A school district in Minnesota is reconsidering holding its graduation ceremonies at a local church… all because a high school student is demanding change.
Back in April, Eli Frost, a sophomore at Chaska High School, launched a Change.org petition urging the Eastern Carver County School Board to stop holding its graduations at Grace Church. His concern wasn’t just limited to church/state separation; he felt the church’s values didn’t align with the district’s.
… Grace Church has a long history of making derogatory, public statements against the LGBTQ+ community. Further, they do not support divorce even in situations of domestic violence. As a community of students and parents who represent a wide variety of marginalized identities, we must change this venue... Continuing to have students have to choose whether or not to attend their graduation ceremony in a place that condemns their identity does not uphold the [anti-discrimination] policy that Eastern Carver County Schools stands by…
Frost, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, is right on principle and right on the ethics.
Even the leader of the church didn’t deny anything Frost said in an interview with the Star Tribune:
Troy Dobbs, senior pastor, declined an interview, but in a statement said that although Grace Church does "affirm the teaching of the Bible regarding gender, marriage, and divorce," it does not discriminate against anyone.
"We welcome everyone," he wrote.
Sure they do. They welcome everyone. They welcome gay and trans people, too, I’m sure… but they also don’t believe gay people should be allowed to marry and they presumably don’t believe trans people exist. (But they’ll take everyone’s money.)
The school district insists there are secular reasons for holding the ceremonies at the church. To be fair, they aren’t bad reasons at all. For example, the largest venue in the district is Chanhassen High School’s football stadium with a capacity of 2,500 people. Grace Church, on the other hand, seats 7,000. That’s more than enough for all graduates and their friends and family members.
The church is also indoors and air-conditioned. The technology is in place to livestream the event for anyone who can’t attend the ceremonies live. It’s close to both high schools in the district.
Most importantly, there’s no direct proselytizing taking place at the events. The school district rents the space for about $28,000 each year—including security and traffic control costs—and it’s strictly business. The pastor doesn’t speak at the ceremony or anything like that. While church paraphernalia may be in the building, it’s not like anyone is handing out pamphlets.
No one is accusing the school district of using the venue in order to proselytize. They’re using the church because it’s convenient. A spokesperson has even said, “we take great pains to make sure religious symbols are not present as part of the ceremony.”
The question here is whether the convenience of the building overrides all the other legitimate concerns.
Frost says no:
Frost said those amenities aren't worth it when the venue may alienate some students and families of different faiths who don't agree with the church's teachings.
He understands that it might be more expensive to contract with another venue and that moving commencement to Minneapolis would extend the drive for Chaska and Chanhassen residents.
"That's a worthwhile tradeoff," Frost maintains.
He makes a great point. If this were a mosque instead of a megachurch, then you have to think more district residents would understand the complaint. On a day that’s the culmination of the high school experience, why bring religion into it, even indirectly, when other options are available?
And yes, other options are available. The Star Tribune points out that larger school districts in the state routinely work with secular venues:
Other districts have contracted with Minneapolis Convention Center, Roy Wilkins Auditorium, Target Center or U.S. Bank Stadium.
So it can be done. A slightly longer drive and a slightly larger cost could be worth finding a more neutral venue in the future. There may be a point where the district is priced out of those other places, but without seeing the numbers and their rationale against it, it’s an open question whether the district has really exhausted all of its options.
That means they’re choosing a Christian venue while downplaying that it has anything to do with Christianity… even though there’s no chance in hell they would ever use that logic with any other religion’s building.
Frost’s petition has over 500 supporters right now. While an online petition alone won’t create change, it’s raised the concern to a much wider audience, and the school board is aware of it.
Eastern Carver County Schools' contract with the venue comes up every year, [Superintendent Lisa] Sayles-Adams said. And Frost's petition has officials ready to consider whether to renew it.
"As a district, you listen and if necessary you make adjustments," Sayles-Adams said.
Listening isn’t enough. The district needs to explore other possibilities and then seriously consider them.
In the meantime, graduates who take these concerns seriously can always make sure they’re promoting LGBTQ rights and bodily autonomy and civil rights and everything else this church opposes in whatever symbolic ways they choose during the ceremonies. Even if the building belongs to an evangelical megachurch, it doesn’t mean the graduates need to give the church’s beliefs any respect.
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