Maryland School Can Hold Graduation in a Church, School Board Says

By Melanie Arter | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - A Maryland school district has agreed to let a high school hold its graduation ceremonies in a church, voting five to three to reverse its previous ban. The decision was confirmed in a statement released Friday by Montgomery County Public Schools.

In 2005, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wrote to county school officials on behalf of some parents, asking them to create a policy to ban the practice of holding graduation in churches. The district acquiesced, turning down subsequent requests for Blair High School to conduct graduation exercises in a church.

But the Blair High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association urged the school board to change the policy, arguing that other venues pose logistical problems and that Jericho City of Praise Church is the only local venue that can hold the 750 graduates and their families.

The association said the church setting would be harmless, because graduation is secular and holding it in the church would not violate the First Amendment.

David Ottalini, the school PTSA's co-president, welcomed the decision.

"We can't thank those members of the board enough for supporting Blair and the parents," he was quoted as a saying.

Americans United wrote a letter to the school board on Thursday prior to the school board meeting, warning it that reversing the policy would expose the school district to "expensive litigation" and it "could not reasonably hope to prevail."

"We urge the school board's members to respect the religious diversity of its student body by declining to hold graduation ceremonies in houses of worship," Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United, said in a statement.

"Unless the religious symbols are covered or removed, Montgomery County public school officials have a duty to find another, neutral site for commencement exercises," she added.

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