A concerned member of the Fruita Monument High School community has sought help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) over a “baccalaureate” ceremony held in the school’s gym last year on May 12, 2014, and possibly over concerns of a similar event occurring this year around graduation time.
A baccalaureate is a religious ceremony held a few days before a school’s official graduation ceremony. Baccalaureates often feature prayers, bible readings, sermons or benedictions, and music. Students may wear their caps and gowns, and readings may be given by school employees.
Because baccalaureates are religious events, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires publicly-funded schools to divorce themselves from any connection to these events. Schools cannot help plan, design or sponsor these ceremonies. School employees cannot participate in organizing such events or appear at them in their official capacities. If school auditoriums or gyms are used for the ceremonies, a private party must rent the venue out for the event. The law requires a complete separation between the school and the baccalaureate in every sense.
Students Who Didn’t Want to Attend Allegedly Threatened
The anonymous complainant reported that FMHS Principal Todd McClaskey, Vice Principal Lee Carleton, and other school staff members helped plan the May, 2014 baccalaureate ceremony at FMHS. They reported that FMHS teachers and administrators spoke in their official capacities at the event, reading bible verses and speaking in general terms about the virtues of being a Christian. FMHS’ choir and orchestra students were required to perform at the baccalaureate, and students who didn’t want to take part in the ceremony were threatened with lower grades and told that if they failed to attend, they would have to perform all of the concert music, solo, in front of the entire class, at a later date.
On January 28, 2015, Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to District 51 Superintendent Steven Schultz citing the May 2014 FMHS ceremony and expressing “serious concerns” about it.
“When courts have permitted privately sponsored baccalaureate services in public schools, the schools took significant steps to ensure that there was no school endorsement, which FMHS has not done in this case. …To avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious practices, a public school should take measures to disassociate itself from religious activity. This means that no public school employees can be involved in the organization, planning or coordination of the baccalaureate services and any employees that chose to attend may not participate in their official capacities. Most importantly, FMHS may not coerce students to perform at these religious events. Threatening student dissenters with lowered grades and public humiliation is not only unconstitutional, but also unconscionable.”
The letter asks Superintendent Schultz to respond in writing about the steps District 51 will take to remedy concerns about the unconstitutional activities taking place at the school.
Since graduation time is still several months away, FFRF says they will give the school district 6-8 weeks to respond to the letter. So far, Mr. Seidel has gotten an informal response via phone from District 51’s attorney, David Price. Mr. Seidel says the matter may need to go in front of the District 51 School Board at one of their upcoming meetings, and they may discuss it in a closed session because it is a legal matter. By keeping discussions closed, Seidel says, the District can keep the matter confidential.
The school district has kept this separation-fo-church-and-state issue quiet. They have not informed the public or media about it so far, but now at least word is out and it is no longer under wraps.