Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 13, 2012

Should majority rule minority?

ATHENS — High school graduations are usually events that are free of legal questions, but the venue of a Mercer County high school’s upcoming ceremony has raised questions about the separation of church and state.

The Mercer County Board of Education recently received a letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., concerning the slated location for PikeView High School’s June graduation ceremony, the Princeton Church of God.

During an emergency meeting May 3, the board voted 4–1 to allow PikeView High to keep its ceremony at the church. Board President Greg Prudich said then that the board believed that having a graduation ceremony at the Princeton Church of God was appropriate. The motion included securing legal counsel to reply to the Americans United letter and to represent the school system if there was any litigation.

Board member Lynne White was the one person who voted against the motion. Her son, Tom White, is a senior at PikeView and one of 10 students who had voted not to have graduation at the church. She said later that she did not believe this was a conflict of interest.

“There’s not personal benefit being sought by this,” she said. “There are regulations and guidelines regarding when a board member needs to step aside and abstain.”

These guidelines include issues such as the employment of family members and purchases, she said.

Lynne White chose not to run for re-election this year.

White’s son, Tom White, is the class valedictorian. He spoke with his father Jim White, a professor of political science at Concord University, about his concerns. PikeView High started hosting graduations at the church in 2008.

“Ever since this came up, I thought it was a bad idea and since I’m actually going to be a graduating senior, for the first time this year that I had a right to speak up about it,” he said.

Tom White said he did not contact Americans United, but talked about the issue during the citizens input portion of the October 2011 board of education meeting. Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union are often looking at such cases throughout the country, Jim White added.

“The issue is that it is a religious place of worship in general, and I feel that certainly has the potential to violate the constitutional rights of people who have to attend the graduation, as well as the constitutional rights of people who go to church in the building and the religious leaders there as well,” Tom White said.

“Because in order to have the graduation at the church, there have been a lot of arguments going back and forth,” he continued. “Ones made by the board of education, certain members of the board of education, have been saying, ‘Well, this is ultimately just a building with nice seats and air conditioning and people shouldn’t look at it as anything more than that.’ I think if I went to the church I would be insulted, offended by those comments. Since they’re coming from public officials, elected officials, I don’t think that’s proper at all.”

PikeView’s graduating seniors voted 158 to 10 to have their graduation at Princeton Church of God. Tom White said that a vote does not negate the rights of the minority.

“Well, since there’s an issue of rights here, the majority’s opinion doesn’t matter,” he said. “The constitution is designed, I’m sure that my father can tell you in more detail than I can, to protect minority rights from the will of the majority. The majority does not always rule.”

People who support the church venue have said that it offers amenities such as plentiful seating, parking and air conditioning. However, son and father countered that for other people, a church is not just another building.

“The first untruth is that it’s just another building,” Jim White said. “The people who are members of that church really care about that building. It’s not just another building. In a way, a building is defined by who spends time there and what they spend time there doing.”

“The people who spend their time and their treasures there, they don’t believe it’s just another building. They believe it’s a place where they go to worship their God. I just know that from past experience,” Jim White said.

One alternative venues that has been suggested is the Princeton (High School) gym, he continued. It can seat 4,000 people.

“One of the objections is that we can’t expect PikeView people to graduate in Princeton. They wouldn’t want to do that, and that just shows you that, of course, a place is defined by who goes there,” Jim White said.

There are other venues, he stated.  

“We graduate students here at Concord University. Bluefield High School graduates students on their football field, PikeView could graduate on their football field. The Princeton gymnasium is another venue. The (Chuck) Mathena Center is another venue, so what it winds up being, it’s bigger than the Mathena Center which has air conditioning, and the other buildings don’t have air conditioning,” Jim White said.

Using the church is not free to the school, he added. Since 2008, the school board has paid a total of $4,200 to the church. However, the superintendent of schools said that no money will go to the church this year.

“In previous years, there was an amount paid to cover some of the expenses that the church incurred,” Superintendent Deborah Akers said. “This year there will be no payment of the expenses the church will incur. They’re absorbing all of the costs.”

Tom and Jim White said the issue goes beyond the cost and the amenities of a graduation venue. Taking an unpopular stand is not easy, Jim White said.

“A lot of 18 year olds are worried about being popular and very scared of being unpopular,” he said. “Being one of the 10 and one of the leading 10 when there are 158 on the other side is a very difficult thing, and I don’t know any 18 year olds who want that. He’s gotten emails from former PikeView grads who said, ‘Thanks for standing up for it. There were lots of us who felt uncomfortable in that setting.’”

On the subject of the students’ vote, Jim White added: “America really being a country where democracy is important, but it’s not all important. Democracy is balanced against a variety of liberties; like, a majority of PikeView students couldn’t vote to take away the right to keep and bear arms, vote to take away their right to privacy or vote to take away their right against unreasonable search and seizure.”

Another point is to protect religion from government regulation. The first amendment is designed to protect religion from “regulation and overarching regulation,” Jim White said.

Whatever standpoint people may have about regulations, the graduation’s venue or the separation of church and state, it is important to discuss the issues calmly.

“All right, first of all, let’s all relax and figure out why you disagree. Just turn the temperature of everything down. Discuss it calmly instead of throwing gas on the fire,” Jim White said.

“Intelligent people of good will can disagree about this. The second thing that I think is important is that it’s important once you understand that the other people might be right, it’s important to make arguments that are consistent,” he said.

Tom White said he still plans to attend his graduation if it is held at the church.

“Yes, I will go. I would say that personally the principle and the arguments behind graduating at a church bothers me more than actually graduating does. At the same time, I feel there are other people who would feel truly bothered by graduating at a church,” he said.

He cited a recent court case to illustrate the problem some individuals could have with a church being a graduation venue; unlike him, they may not feel that they can attend. In a 2006 case in New Jersey, Sharif vs. Newark Public School, a Muslim student sued his school because his religious beliefs forbade him from entering a building with religious iconography.

“And we haven’t, that we know of, had a case like that in Mercer County,” Tom White said. “but if it happened, I don’t think we should force a student to stand up and actually say, ‘Look, I actually can’t go to this graduation. You can see how much people don’t like me for standing up and saying this. It shouldn’t be forced upon anyone else.”

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