Jesus v. Jostens
The sign in front of Western Albemarle High School announced a June 1 baccalaureate service at a nearby church to send grads into the world with prayer.
Some dismayed parents grabbed their phones and called the County and the Virginia Department of Transportation. The sign was removed within two days.
“It was in front of the school, implying it was an official event,” says one WAHS mother, who asks that her name not be used because of “the risk of my daughter being persecuted.”
The offending sign was printed in Warriors blue, the school’s color, and the sponsoring group was called the Western Albemarle Ministerial Association.
“It looked like they wanted the appearance of school endorsement,” says this mom, adding that those not interested in the service were “marginalized” when they had to pass by it everyday.
At least one member of the class of 2002 felt even worse than marginalized.
“It really bothers me they put that sign up in front of the school,” says Camm, who asked that his last name not be used to avoid “letter bombs.”
“I’m sure they knew they weren’t supposed to put the sign there,” Camm says. “It bothers me they’re really trying to force this upon us.”
The sign went up over the Memorial Day weekend, erected by the Reverend Tim Read of Tabor Presbyterian Church in Crozet. He says he was careful not to put the sign on school property, and he denies that his illegal placement of the sign in the public right of way was an act of civil disobedience. Instead, Read describes it as an “oversight” that he failed to obtain VDOT permission.
VDOT superintendent Billy Mayo says he removed the sign on May 29 after over 20 calls were received in the Yancey Mills and Charlottesville VDOT offices.
But the controversy didn't end with the sign. The school’s refusal to provide organizers with graduating seniors’ names and addresses created another stink– over the separation of church and state.
“We believe we’ve acted within school board policy with what we’ve done,”says assistant superintendant Frank Morgan
That policy prohibits the distribution of literature for "partisan, sectarian, religious, or political purposes.”
While there's no room at the inn for Jesus, commercial interests prevail. And that's got WAHS senior Matthew Helt, a baccalaureate organizer, steamed.
“They give the addresses to Herff-Jones, [a company which provides rings, invitations, and caps and gowns] and Jostens, the yearbook company,” he says. “It’s not like we’re soliciting anything.”
However, Morgan thinks the commercial argument has been “overplayed.” Morgan says County schools only give out student addresses when there’s a contractual obligation.
Sharon Helt, Matthew’s mother, helped find addresses and send out the invitations. “I believe in the separation of church and state,” she says. “This was a community effort.”
Not everyone sang praises over what they found in their mail. A Jewish family in Ivy was “taken aback” when their son received an invitation to the baccalaureate service, they said, because it looked so much like an official mailing from the school. Even Pastor Read admits the service was “unapologetically Christian.”
Steve Benen at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says Albemarle did the right thing.
“In order to remain neutral," says Benen, "schools can’t encourage religious activities in any way.”
Rebecca Glenberg at the ACLU of Virginia notes that if the school’s policy on releasing student information “excludes everyone equally and is based on neutral criterion, then it’s fine.”
Over at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, director Bob O’Neil points out that schools can acknowledge an off-campus baccalaureate service as part of the graduation activities without violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) because attendance is not compulsory.
“The problem comes," says O'Neil, "when schools are asked to participate in a more substantial way by providing names and addresses or providing space.”
However, O’Neil also says that if the school regularly makes addresses available to commercial providers and does not make them available to religious organizations, that would be “suspect.”
Pastor Read says he has no interest in suing the County “at this time,” and mentions that he’d received an offer of help from local civil/religious liberties defender, the Rutherford Institute.
Interestingly, Rutherford founder John Whitehead told The Hook that parents have a right not to have their kids exposed to religion, and he believes the courts would probably see this as a parental rights issue.
“You’ve got parental rights versus student rights versus public forum and free expression,” says Whitehead. “There’s not a straight-forward easy answer.”
Except in one case. “Removing a sign that obstructs the right of way is clearly legal,” Whitehead points out.
Last Saturday, 22 graduation gown-sporting seniors out of a class of 216 attended the baccalaureate service at Crozet Baptist Church. Matthew Helt says he wasn’t disappointed by low turnout because it was a busy weekend, and the baccalaureate is not a tradition at this point.
And as far as getting the word out to graduating seniors the week before the service, assistant superintendent Frank Morgan says, “With all the publicity, I don’t think there’s a problem with students being aware of the baccalaureate now.”