Baccalaureate holds spiritual significance for some, questions for others

Some say it’s about showcasing the talents of the senior class. Some say it’s about honoring those who got them to graduation. Depending on the school and who you ask, it’s a send-off for graduates with a hint of spirituality, a blend of religion and recognition, or a solid hour of church-like reflection and praise.

However you define it, the tradition of baccalaureate is carried out at all four of District 51’s four largest high schools. Central, Palisade and Grand Junction high school gyms and auditoriums will host baccalaureate for the Class of 2015 tonight and Fruita Monument High School will have baccalaureate in its gym Monday night.

Monday’s baccalaureate ceremony at Fruita Monument will include prayers, Scripture readings and musical performances, all by students, as well as a speech from a church youth group leader. Sarah Benton, Fruita’s senior class president, has planned the event with the class vice president and secretary. The trio hosted auditions and picked speakers. Benton also will read Psalm 23.

“I’m excited because speaking about God is something I’m passionate about. It’s a big part of my life,” she said.

Benton attends a Christian church but said baccalaureate is non-denominational. She believes having a religious ceremony at school isn’t awkward or inappropriate because it’s not mandatory for students to attend baccalaureate, which Benton said about half of seniors typically do.

Not everyone is so comfortable with talk of religion in a high school building, though. Baccalaureate can raise a host of questions about the separation of church and state, as it did earlier this year, when a Fruita Monument orchestra student was reportedly told he or she had to perform at baccalaureate in order to earn part of a grade for orchestra class. That prompted a local resident, who has not been publicly identified, to alert the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based religion and government separation advocacy group.

The group sent a letter to School District 51 advising them to make changes to baccalaureate operations, according to District 51 Executive Director of High Schools Matt Diers. Those changes include keeping school staff out of baccalaureate planning and making it clear to students that attendance is voluntary.

The District 51 School Board adopted a new policy last month in an attempt to clarify vague baccalaureate regulations. Diers said having the event in a school is not a First Amendment violation as long as it is not organized, promoted or endorsed by school personnel and treated like any other event hosted in a school by an outside party. The district wanted to make it clear following the foundation’s letter that students and parents should be responsible for baccalaureate planning and presentation, including payment through class dues of a school building rental fee for the event. The policy allows staff to attend baccalaureate but only while representing themselves as parents or private citizens.

“Schools can’t actively promote a religious service in their school so it was interpreted that if I as principal helped organize and served as master of ceremonies, I promoted a religious ceremony in schools. We had to do away with that,” Diers said, referencing his time emceeing baccalaureate when he served as principal of Palisade High School. “These (baccalaureate events) were always organized by and performed by students. It was me putting on the show that was a violation. You won’t see that anymore.”

Fruita Monument teacher and student senate advisor Vanessa Hayward said schools are rented “all the time” by outside groups. As with any event — school-associated or not — that takes place in a school building, principals are still allowed to be in the building during baccalaureate to make sure the event doesn’t get out of hand. Central High Assistant Principal Jennifer Smyth said she will be in the Central building during baccalaureate but her only duty is to make sure the building is unlocked.

“The kids arrange the speakers and the music,” Smyth said.

She said she hasn’t heard of any scripture readings in the Central baccalaureate program but there will be a speaker from a church group. The ceremony also will feature a slide show of student pictures and singing acts.

Current Palisade High Principal Dan Bollinger said he plans to be at baccalaureate not only because his son is graduating but because he wants to keep an eye on the building and the quality of the program. Even though it’s framed as a student-thrown event and not a Palisade High production, he said a poor program would reflect badly on the school.

Palisade Student Body President Kris Urbin is planning the event with a handful of other students and expects it to go well. He said it has more of a “religious tie” than graduation, but that’s not the part he’s looking forward to most.

“It’s cool to see everyone showcase their talents and see what’s unique about our class,” he said.

The Palisade baccalaureate program will have student music performances and a speech by the Rev. Jim Petermen of Palisade Christian Church, who students invited to participate in the ceremony. Peterman said students often visit his church, which is across the street from the school. He plans to share “a spiritually encouraging message.”

“It’s going to be like having a conversation with many of my friends as they begin the next part of a very exciting adventure,” Petermen said.

There won’t be any religious speakers or Bible verses at Grand Junction High School’s baccalaureate service, according to Senior Class Vice President Ben Arja, but there will be an opening prayer. Arja, who helped plan the ceremony, said the event will honor four teachers at the school for their work in helping students get to graduation and feature two music performances by seniors and music by orchestra and choir students.

“Baccalaureate used to be kind of a religious ceremony but not so much anymore because we’re a public school,” Arja said. “There’s a group concerned about the religious part so administration had to take a step back so just students are organizing it.”

Arja said he’s had a busy second semester planning baccalaureate “but I’ve enjoyed it for the most part.” He said the ceremony is more intimate than commencement.

“It’s more personal than graduation. It’s less celebratory than graduation and more of a nice ceremony,” he said.

Blaine McCormick, a Fruita Monument senior who will read Philippians 4:13 at his baccalaureate, agreed.

“At graduation, they say your name and you listen to people speak and get a diploma,” he said. “At baccalaureate, you feel more connected to the speakers and to each other as well.”


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IN 2014, students who refused to participate in FMHS’s religious ceremony reported that not only were they threatened with lower grades, but told they would have to perform all of the concert music from the event alone, in front of their entire class at a later date, if they did not perform at the baccalaureate. The FMHS principal and vice principal were also reportedly involved in planning organizing the 2014 ceremony, and some teachers read Bible verses. This is a blatant violation of students’ civil rights and of the separation of Church and state, hence the report to FFRF.

Here is the letter from FFRF to District 51 about the 2014 violations:
http://annelandmanblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/FMHSBaccalaureateFFRFltr.pdf

It’s good to see District 51 paying more attention to issues of separation of church and state in our public schools, as violations continue to occur not just here, but across the western slope. We’ve had reports of teachers routinely quoting the bible to students in Delta schools and then treating students poorly when they question it, and of students being forced to attend religious plays against their will. We’ve also heard reports of churches being allowed to promote their youth-centered recreational facilities in D-51 schools. Such activities are blatant violations of students’ rights and of the separation of church and state embodied in the Constitution, and can be reported anonymously on the website of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers at http://westerncoloradoatheists.org/report-churchstate-violations/

We will bring these problems out into the daylight and address them head on as they occur.

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