Dallas ISD, the ACLU and the Continuing Debate Over Graduations in Churches

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"Hey God: Catch!"
Back in January, the Dallas Independent School District suffered some minor self-inflicted PR wounds when it tried to eliminate a policy that bans schools from holding graduations in places of worship, except for in "unusual" circumstances. After the ACLU did the whole ACLU thing -- stern press releases, vague threats of legal action, you know the drill -- the district backed down, and life went on.

Or so it seemed. But the issue is back, for the moment anyway. So is the ACLU.

Here's the background: The School for the Talented and Gifted, a magnet school in southern Dallas, has for years held its commencement ceremonies at nearby First Presbyterian Church. Before this year, no one really knew that was against the rules, or cared. So in January, the board considered scrapping the rule altogether.

That's when the ACLU showed up.

"DISD should tread cautiously in this area," Lisa Graybill, ACLU of Texas' legal director, said in a news release at the time. "The current policy provides a safeguard to ensure commencement exercises are held in appropriate, non-sectarian locations where all students, their families, and school personnel feel equally comfortable. Changing the policy could ultimately result in a constitutional challenge and costly litigation."

The district backed off, and so did the ACLU, figuring that the district would simply continue enforcing its policy: No graduations in places of worship unless there are no other options.

But, as trustees discussed at a board briefing last week, the TAG magnet still needs somewhere to hold its graduation.

The ACLU-approved policy requires schools to get get written consent from the superintendent, which can only be granted if, "due to unusual and extenuating circumstances, a religious site is the only viable location for commencement." But while TAG did ask for permission, district staff said at the briefing that there didn't appear to be unusual circumstances, and the church didn't appear to be the only viable location. The reason given for using the church? The announcements were already printed.

So instead of granting the school permission, Alan King, the interim superintendent, asked the board to simply waive the policy. The bureaucratic end-around -- "Hey, I know! Let's just keep the policy and ignore it when we feel like it!" -- caught a couple of trustees off-guard.

"To circumvent the superintendent to bring it to the board ... is really a violation of the policy," trustee Carla Ranger said at last week's briefing. Trustee Eric Cowan agreed: "This doesn't need to come to the board. I not really sure why we're wasting time on this."

The board soon tabled the discussion and left it be voted on next week. For now, it's in the "consent agenda," destined to be voted on en masse with a slew of other proposals. But Ranger has already vowed to pull it for a separate discussion, which the ACLU will no doubt be watching.

Holding graduation in a worship space is "alienating to students who are not of the religious persuasion of the building," Stephanie Bauman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, told me yesterday, after watching footage of last week's board briefing. "It's not inclusive of everyone's religious beliefs. It has the potential to ostracize, and that shouldn't happen at a graduation."

The board's policy, she says, "is a reasonable way to balance the religious freedom of students with schools' needs to have a viable place to hold a graduation. ... They can't meet the policy, so now they're asking for special treatment to just not be subject to the policy."

To be sure, DISD has bigger problems than where its kids graduate, starting with whether its kids graduate. And it seems unlikely that anyone will cry foul to the ACLU, or that the ACLU will make a show out of one little graduation. But if someone does cry foul, you can count on the ACLU doing that whole ACLU thing, and you never know what happens from there.

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2012 TAG Graduate
2012 TAG Graduate

First Presbeterian has always even very gracious to allow us to use their building during such a special day. It is a beautiful facility with a perfect amount of seating in the sanctuary so that everyone can fit and you don't feel swallowed up and awkward by the largeness of the area. I, as an atheist, was not in any way offended by the venue. In fact, I didn't see anyone that night who was employed by the church. I know that there was someone back in the kitchen to prepare the punch so that no health codes would be broken (as it is also a soup kitchen), but other than that, everyone there that I saw was a graduate, a family member, or a faculty member. It is very offensive that this attack is being made when the school has done nothing wrong, and the church very graciously allows us to use their building as a perfect location for a completely secular, FREE commencement venue.

Diane Birdwell
Diane Birdwell

Wait. They are worried about THIS? Not about "Redtails," where females--an entire gender--were purposefully and deliberately left out of an event funded with tax dollars, but they worry about THIS?

Oh wait. Maybe that is the plan. Make us forget about REAL problems and replace it with one that has NOT been a problem...until now. Thanks, ACLU. For once, you are doing the work of the oligarchy. Wow.

Helpful Observer
Helpful Observer

Aren't there some big Gentlemen's Clubs available that could host this instead?

Rumpunch
Rumpunch

Also, who would want their processional march to be Def Lepperd's "Pour Some Sugar on Me"?

Rumpunch
Rumpunch

The problem is the DJ will never be able to break the habit of each time they introduce someone to the stage, having to say who is coming next over and over and over.

RTGolden
RTGolden

"The ACLU-approved policy requires schools to....."I didn't know the ACLU was an official policy-making or policy -approving arm of the government.  Since when does our elected school board have to seek the approval of a non-public, non-elected, agenda-driven organization for anything?  It's beginning to look like the only thing as bad as religious fundamentalism is non-religious fundamentalism.

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing

Man, how worthless has the ACLU become?

My high school graduation (540 students) was held at a church in the suburbs.  It was one of those big stadium size baptists jumbotron churches.  Just because graduation was held inside a church doesn't mean any ounce of the ceremony was or felt religious or alienating.  One of my best friends was Muslim.  I was Mormon and told almost every day in the halls at school by students who were members of that specific congregation that I was going to hell.  Still, none of that bothered me or my family or friends who were Catholic, Methodist, non-denom, etc.

JustWondering
JustWondering

Having been at the DISD field houses when a number of commencement ceremonies were held, and having listened the number and style of "invocations" given and other inclusions in the program and the addresses, I don't think it's the building that makes a difference. (Does DISD charge its own schools for the use of the Loos and Davis sites?)

dallasmay
dallasmay

My grandmother attended a public school that was *gasp!* held in a church! It's funny that these people complain about Christians building these big fancy buildings for themselves, but when the christians try to open them up as community centers, now they are forcing their religion on others.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

Would you sing the same tune if it was held in a mosque or a synagogue? You may, but I bet alot of other people would flip their lid at that news.

JustWondering
JustWondering

 If the religious organization is okay enough with it to offer their space in the first place, I'm okay with attending a commencement there.

dallasmay
dallasmay

Well, I wouldn't mind rather I would enjoy the opportunity, but I respect other people's culture and beliefs. That can't be said of the people that work for the ACLU. They won't be happy until every visible sign of religion is banished from public view. 

That said, yeah, there are some ignorant Christians that would object. But the fact that there are ignorant people on one side doesn't justify the ignorant actions from the other.

OC Banshee
OC Banshee

The ACLU-approved policy requires schools to get get written consent from the superintendent, which can only be granted if, "due to unusual and extenuating circumstances"How about it is Free! Even DISD facilities are not free! No money was budgeted for TAG Graduation and that is extenuating circumstance.   ACLU can be there to police no religious speak! Buck up, Mr. King, take out the pen are give permission.  Seems this is a better "yes" than boy only field trip in Mesquite. 

LaceyB
LaceyB

Well, since politics has their big claws in our education, why not let churches dip their hands in also. Who else wants in?

Chris Renard
Chris Renard

The students at TAG are some of the smartest and most opinionated students in the district. They aren't going to change their minds just because they stepped inside a church once.

And while I understand a line like "reason given for using the church? The announcements were already printed" makes for a great article, it's patently false; the logistics for the current site have already been worked out, parking, reception, and everything else would have to be worked out again for any other site.

-- Chris Renard, TAG class of 2007

Ed D.
Ed D.

My personal church/state meter is calibrated pretty sensitively but this seems to be much ado about nothing. It's just a building.

Guest
Guest

Maybe I've got my outrage meter set too low, but I don't understand the big deal about having graduation in a church building. Just because it's in a church building doesn't mean that the ceremony has to be religious in nature at all.

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

This is an email I received from a parent a few minutes ago:

The church that TAG holds it's graduation ceremonies at is absolutelyfree. In fact, I think the church itself may use some of their money tohost the event, but they never charge us.  They consider it a communityservice.  They never evangelize or proselytize, in fact, only a fewmembers/staff are even present to take care of the building during the ceremonyand reception.  We just use the building. TAG has had it's graduationservices there for a long time (well before my other son graduated in 2007). Lew Blackburn is always the keynote speaker and he remembers that thegraduation has been there since he has been a trustee. 

 

It is a beautiful, historic building in a centrallocation (our families come from all over Dallas, since it is a magnet) withfree, secure parking. It is much nicer than a gym or school auditorium and wehave never had any complaints over the years that I am aware of. Inquiries were not made for another location this year because the churchhas always worked with TAG  to accommodate our graduation into theirschedule.  I think in the initial years that graduation was held there,there were multiple inquiries made and they settled on the church. After that,it was no longer necessary as the church worked with TAG to establish agraduation date. 

 

This will be a moot point after this year, as the classes willbe too large to hold graduation in this venue. The class of 2013 has alreadybeen searching out alternative venues.  Who knows why the ACLU has decidedto launch this attack, but it is so unnecessary and hurtful to theschool.  The district does not need this headache. It is not just becausethe invitations are already printed, although I am affected by that since Ihave a senior.  Who wants to be shunted last minute to a gym or warehousefacility for graduation when a lovely, historic, comfortable building wasavailable for free and already booked for us? Especially when we have such asmall class, by DISD standards? 

Rumpunch
Rumpunch

The hall at Townview is not big enough for the graduation.  Although there are only 60 graduates, there will be no shortage of family and friends in attendence.  An unforseen consequence of parental involvement. :)

Mike
Mike

Do some schools not have athletic halls? While I did not grow up in Texas, I do not see reason why you do not have in same place we played basketball. It must be a baby boomer as parent thing. My nephew's private school graduation was in same place as where local university (consistently a top 20 school) plays basketball - ginormous. They cycled 4 schools through on same day with each school only occupying a tiny share of area.

Michael MacNaughton
Michael MacNaughton

Ranger will need another Trustee to pull it for a second vote.  I believe one Trustee already rescinded their "second" to keep it on the consent agenda where I firmly agree it should stay for now.  The policy clearly needs to be re-written and it would be more than a minor inconvenience to move the graduation event from the traditional venue at which it has been held seemingly since the formation of the school.  There have never been any complaints or even a hint of "alienation by the religious persuasion of the building" from the students or parents.  Tempest in a teapot.

scottindallas
scottindallas

 That doesn't mean it makes some uncomfortable.  The Presbyterians tend to be pretty low key, though you never know.  I've been at similar events where the pastor is allowed a few words, and find they often have a hard time not proselytizing at least indirectly.  Just because no body said anything to you, doesn't mean it isn't awkward for some.

Joe Tone
Joe Tone

Good point about pulling the item, Michael. You'd think Cowan might, but maybe not. 

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

How about using a school owned Field House at one of the sports complexes ?

Gabe
Gabe

How many kids do they have graduating? Is it small enough to fit into something like the Texas Theater? They can fit 900. 

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

Townview TAG has a graduating class of about 60.  Very tiny.

I want to know if the church is donating the facility or if DISD is paying (someone's relative) for the use of the church.

Since the invites are printed, let it go this year and change the policy.  Get Mr. Mayor to donate city venues (like the Hall of State) for graduations for DISD.

Again, the choice of the church is fishy to me.  Why wasn't the first choice the school's auditorium?  

TAG Grad
TAG Grad

By the way, we don't have an auditorium. Our "theater" is about the size of a medium university lecture hall, and the stage leaves a lot to be desired.

Gabe
Gabe

Well if there is 60 students, you could be looking at a crowd of 3-600 once you include faculty and family. The school's meeting room or auditorium may not be that large.

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