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After teen's petition, a Minnesota school district will stop holding graduation in a megachurch
"Grace Church has a long history of making derogatory, public statements against the LGBTQ+ community," wrote high school student Eli Frost
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After a months-long push by a high school student, a Minnesota school district has agreed to stop holding its graduation ceremonies at a local church.
Back in April, Eli Frost, a then-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 was right on principle and right on the ethics.
Even the leader of the church didn’t deny anything Frost said in a statement to 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.
They welcome everyone, including gay and trans people, but they also don’t believe gay people should be allowed to marry and they presumably don’t believe trans people exist. (Still, they’ll take everyone’s money.)
The school district insisted there were secular reasons for holding the ceremonies at the church. To be fair, they weren’t bad reasons at all. For example, the largest venue in the district was Chanhassen High School’s football stadium with a capacity of 2,500 people. Grace Church, on the other hand, seated 7,000. That was more than enough for all graduates and their friends and family members without needing some kind of ticket reservation system.
The church was also indoors and air-conditioned. The technology was in place to livestream the event for anyone who couldn’t attend the ceremonies live. It was closer to both high schools in the district.
Most importantly, there was no direct proselytizing taking place at the events. The school district rented the space for about $28,000 each year—including security and traffic control costs—and it was strictly business. The pastor didn’t speak at the ceremony or anything like that. While church paraphernalia may have been in the building, it’s not like anyone was handing out pamphlets.
No one was accusing the school district of using the venue in order to proselytize. They were using the church because it was convenient. A spokesperson even said, “we take great pains to make sure religious symbols are not present as part of the ceremony.”
The question here was whether the convenience of the church outweighed all the other legitimate concerns.
Frost argued that it didn’t:
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 made 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 meant to be the culmination of the high school experience, why bring religion into it, even indirectly, when other options were available?
Indeed, other options were available.
The Star Tribune pointed out in June that larger school districts in the state routinely worked with secular venues:
Other districts have contracted with Minneapolis Convention Center, Roy Wilkins Auditorium, Target Center or U.S. Bank Stadium.
So it could be done. The district just had to agree that the neutral venue was worth the slightly longer drive and slightly higher cost. There might be a point where the district was priced out of those other places, but without seeing the numbers and any rationale against it, there was an open question as to whether the district had really exhausted all of its options.
That meant, for the time being, they were choosing a Christian venue while downplaying that it had anything to do with Christianity (even though there was no chance in hell they would ever use that logic with any other religion’s building).
It’s not like they were unaware of the pushback, though. Earlier this year, when Frost’s petition had just over 500 supporters, the school board said it was listening to the criticism.
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.
The petition received 2,796 signatures before it eventually closed.
And now, finally, that listening has resulted in meaningful action.
On September 6, the district’s lawyers informed the board that “ECCS faces a substantial risk of litigation if it chooses to continue to use Grace Church’s facilities for its graduation ceremonies.”
“While we lack sufficient information to provide an opinion on whether specific messages delivered by Grace Church could violate ECCS’s policy, we note that many religious institutions advocate views that could be interpreted by some members of the public as intolerant of individuals on the basis of their membership in legally-protected categories,” the memorandum reads. “To the extent that any viewpoints espoused by Grace Church leaders fall within the reach of ECCS’s anti-discrimination policy, claimed violations of the District’s policy could serve as an additional basis for legal challenges to the District’s practice of holding its graduation ceremonies at the church.”
A lot of the lawyers’ memorandum cited arguments made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State and said “Both letters implied the possibility of future litigation against ECCS if the District does not move its ceremonies to a secular venue.”
FFRF had also warned the district in its June letter that this issue wouldn’t go away anytime soon even if students like Frost graduated: “If the District continues to hold ceremonies at Grace Church, any parent or student whose rights were violated could pursue legal claims after the fact.” (FFRF also awarded Frost a $2,000 scholarship for raising awareness about this issue.)
All of that was enough for the board to make a change.
This year’s graduation—and future ones, presumably—will be held at the Target Center in Minneapolis. The price will jump to $62,200—that’s $55,200 to rent the space and another $7,000 to help shuttle families between the district and the venue—but the cost of a possible lawsuit if they continue holding graduation at an evangelical megachurch could be even higher.
Frost gracefully welcomed the decision:
“I would like to thank our superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams for making the choice to move graduation from Grace Church,” Frost said in an email statement. “There are hundreds of students, parents, and educators past and present that will benefit from this change. The district with this decision has shown its commitment to being an inclusive school district for everyone regardless of unchosen differences. It means the world to the students who were most negatively affected by the past venue and it’s really just incredible.”
While the church/state groups and Frost ought to celebrate this news, FFRF notes that the problem hasn’t been resolved everywhere:
… Unfortunately, a nearby school district, Shakopee Public Schools, also hosts its graduation at Grace Church.
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation urges Shakopee Public Schools to follow suit and is prepared to go to court to defend the right of students to a secular graduation venue free of sectarian influence,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We urge students and parents in that district who object to a megachurch venue as a school graduation to contact FFRF.”
Now that the Eastern Carver County School District has changed its venue, perhaps other districts will reconsider their thinking in order to avoid the problem. At least that’s what they’ll do if they’re smart about it.
There is a counter-petition online started by another student in the district urging the board to bring graduation back to the church, but the arguments in that one are nowhere as thoughtful as what Frost wrote earlier. The petition claims “Grace Church has always been a pillar of our community” and that the church “created an atmosphere filled with joy, unity, and familiarity.” That’s the sort of thing you write when you’re incapable of taking off your Jesus-tinted glasses. Traditions that are fundamentally broken shouldn’t be continued just because some people are used to them.
The petition also cites “crime statistics” in support of staying in the suburbs without any further details. (Guess what? If you’re worried about a carjacking, you can take the district-provided shuttle.) It’s telling that there’s no push by that student to move graduation to a different suburban venue that’s not the church. If the fear is crime, then perhaps a smaller local venue like a school gym would be better (despite its limitations), but none of that matters to this person because…. church.
Moving graduation to a neutral venue shouldn’t upset anyone. It’s a decision the board should’ve made years ago. Thanks to a forward-thinking student, though, they made the move before it was too late.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
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