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Schools Drop Out of Grads' Baccalaureate Ceremonies

September 01, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

The Glendale school board, on the advice of its legal counsel, has voted to end district sponsorship of a voluntary religious ceremony for graduating seniors because it may violate the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

As a result of Tuesday's board action, the traditional baccalaureate services at two Glendale high schools can no longer be organized or sponsored by the schools.

Parent, student and church organizations can apply as independent community groups to use school sites for the services. The school district will be precluded from sending out notice of the services.

Supt. Robert Sanchis said the district has not received complaints about the services but asked attorneys for an opinion in light of a state Court of Appeal ruling that banned prayer at public school graduations.

Constitutional Violations

The appellate court ruled in Bennett vs. Livermore Unified School District in July, 1987, that religious invocations at high school graduation ceremonies violate the California and U.S. Constitutions. The court did not discuss baccalaureate services in its ruling.

The board members voted unanimously but reluctantly for the change, which they said was necessary to comply with state law. The trustees said they hope the ceremonies, which have been held at Glendale schools for more than 50 years, will continue under another sponsor.

"We're taking away the effect of promoting religious purposes, but instead we're promoting non-religious purposes," trustee Sharon Beauchamp said. "I am very against this."

But trustee June Sweetnam said she thought that discontinuing the services--which employ Christian imagery and center on sermons by clergy--was appropriate.

"There were references that would offend people of other religions, and I am offended for them," Sweetnam said. "I feel it just doesn't work for the majority of people in Glendale."

In a letter delivered to the district last week, Cathy Hagan of the district's law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, said it was unclear whether the appellate court ruling applied to baccalaureate services but that "the better view appears to be that any religious exercises at public school functions violate the California Constitution and may violate the United States Constitution."

While awaiting that opinion, the district allowed services at Glendale High School and Crescenta Valley High School in June to go on as planned. Hoover High School discontinued its services about 10 years ago because of lack of student interest, school officials said.

Although the services at Glendale schools were described as nondenominational, the baccalaureate at Glendale High School this spring contained references to Jesus Christ and readings primarily from the New Testament.

The services were also described as voluntary but included the presentation of 160 school awards to graduating seniors.

Sanchis said Tuesday he hoped parents interested in continuing the services will ask community groups to organize future services.

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