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The Suburbanite
  • Moving Hoover High School graduation is best legal option

  • Other districts in the county hold their graduations in churches, too, but it's unknown whether North Canton's decision will affect their ceremonies.
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    • Comparing the venues
      How does the Canton Memorial Civic Center compare to Faith Family Church?

      CIVIC CENTER


      Seats: 3,500

      Parking spots: 1,500 at $...
      » Read more
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      Comparing the venues
      How does the Canton Memorial Civic Center compare to Faith Family Church?
      CIVIC CENTER


      Seats: 3,500
      Parking spots: 1,500 at $5 each
      FAITH FAMILY


      Seats: 3,786
      Parking spots: 1,449 to 1,500
      Sources: Faith Family Church and Canton Memorial Civic Center
  • Moving the high school's graduation from Faith Family Church has sparked outrage from students and parents, but the district's attorney says the courts have clearly stated it's not OK to hold a school event in a house of worship.
    Mary Jo Shannon Slick, general counsel for the Stark County Educational Service Center, said there are two court cases that have determined it's unconstitutional to have graduation in a church and none that have ruled in favor of the schools. The Supreme Court is deciding whether to hear an appeal in one of the cases.
    North Canton City Schools made the choice to move its graduation from Faith Family Church in Jackson Township after a parent voiced a concern about the location with a national organization that fights for the separation of church and state. Other districts in the county hold their graduations in churches, too, but it's unknown whether North Canton's decision will affect their ceremonies.
    "I think that the school board is being cautious because I don't think you want to send the message to your students that you're going to ignore the rule of law," Slick said.
    'RELIGIOUS, CHRISTIAN MESSAGES'
    The district received a letter in August from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group based in Madison, Wisc., that promotes itself as an organization of freethinkers who champion keeping religion separate from government.
    An attorney for the organization wrote that a parent had contacted the foundation with reservations about the North Canton's 2013 ceremony at the church and the fact that future graduations might be planned for the same place. The letter states it's unconstitutional to force people to enter a building that might stand for beliefs they don't support. And while graduation technically might be optional, it's also unconstitutional to ask someone to give up a personal right because they're resisting a religious practice.
    "Any reasonable Hoover High School graduate, student, faculty member, or guest can only conclude that the school endorses the religious, Christian messages espoused by the church," the letter reads.
    Annie Laurie Gaylor, cofounder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the crux of the argument is that 13 years of secular, public education shouldn't end in a ceremony held in a religious institution because the venue is exclusionary and will make some people feel uncomfortable.
    If North Canton hadn't agreed to move its graduation, the next step could have been legal action, Gaylor said. The organization is involved in several lawsuits, including one about graduation prayer in South Carolina.
    LEGAL PRECEDENT
    Legally, the issue centers on the Establishment Clause, Slick said, which is the part of the First Amendment that prohibts the federal government from establishing a national religion.
    Page 2 of 3 - In a 2010 case out of Connecticut, a district court ordered a high school to move its graduation from a church after the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of some parents, sued the board of education. The school district settled with the ACLU in 2012 and agreed to stop holding graduations at the church.
    A similar case originated out of Wisconsin. After several years of litigation, an appeals court ruled against the district, saying the prevalence of religious symbols in the church made it look like the state was endorsing Christianity.
    That case is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both Slick and North Canton City Schools Superintendent Hartenstein said they are waiting for the court's definitive answer — if the court chooses to hear the case.
    'IT'S OUR PROBLEM'
    Hoover High School isn't the only district to use the church for its commencement exercises. Jackson and Perry High Schools both held their graduations at Faith Family Church in 2013.
    Michelle Board, with the church office, said the church has never before encountered an issue like the one North Canton City Schools is facing. Church officials declined to comment further on the situation.
    Besides Faith Family Church, nearby districts — including Canton Local and Northwest Local — have held graduations in area Baptist temples.
    Hartenstein said parents have questioned why other districts are allowed to have their graduations at churches but North Canton no longer is.
    He said he doesn't know, but his assumption is that it's because no one has complained.
    "It's our problem right now," Hartenstein said.
    Slick said she can't speak for the other districts but said if they consulted her, she would advise them based on previous court rulings.
    'AN IMPORTANT CIVICS LESSON'
    After the church was ruled out as a graduation location, some parents suggested the district survey students to ask them where they'd like to have their ceremony instead. The civic center was the overwhelming winner, Hartenstein said.
    Space-wise, there's little difference between the two locations in terms of available seating and parking.
    But some people have said they think the acoustics at the church are better and that parking is more convenient, according to previous GateHouse Ohio reporting.
    About 30 seniors showed up at last week's board of education meeting to protest moving graduation and told board members they had circulated a petition that was signed by nearly 300 of their classmates.
    Slick said she's heard the seniors are upset, but she thinks the situation presents an opportunity for students to learn about the Constitution and the court system.
    "I would hope that they would realize it's an important civics lesson," she said.
    Page 3 of 3 - Reach Alison at 330-580-8312 or on Twitter: @amatasREP
    Sources: Faith Family Church and Canton Memorial Civic Center