Sunday, May 2, 2010
THINKING ABOUT CHURCH AND STATE
The Enfield, Connecticut, school board needs a venue for their high school commencement activities. They had planned to hold it on the school athletic fields but learned from the manufacturers of the pricey artificial turf recently laid down that commencement foot traffic will void the warranty. Renting a civic center or arena would cost as much as $70,000 and in this economy that’s too much money for school boards to lay out.
So what to do? For $16,000 the district can rent a nearby mega-church that seats 3000 people. According to the pastor, the inside of the church is basically generic space; that is, it doesn’t look like a traditional church on the inside. And of course the commencement itself will not have any religious overtones.
There’s a big difference between $70,000 and $16,000, and the school board voted to rent the church.
But now comes the ACLU. They are prepared to sue on behalf of “unidentified students” who might consider they are being forced to be subjected to religious symbols and to avoid this would have to stay home instead of attend the graduation ceremony. But it’s not only the ACLU that is concerned. There is also a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State and their position is that holding commencement in a church is antithetical to the American idea of neutrality about religion as laid out in our Constitution. This group feels that being in that church would make non-Christians feel very uncomfortable.
Now all this seems so foolish. From an economic standpoint it makes good sense to use this particular church. I get awfully irked at the ACLU sometimes, even with as liberal a mind-set as I have. In the particular case of the Enfield school commencement activities I find it easy to say these other groups are sure making a big brouhaha out of nothing.
However, I also imagine that if the Enfield school board had decided to hold commencement activities in a big mosque, or even a big synagogue, there would be a bigger brouhaha than what they’ve got on their hands now. I am afraid that asking Enfielders to ignore the religious trappings of those buildings for such a secular event would not go over well at all. Double standard? Yes, I think so -- maybe not because we are bigoted, which none of us wants to admit to, but because we are simply uncomfortable around what we aren’t familiar with.
Enfield may have this resolved by now. I am interested in knowing how this plays out.