Graduate with Jesus!
The following is an accounting of the events that took place regarding the lawsuit I participated in. [Italicized snarking was done in 2014]
I received word that on November 15, 2005 the settlement was entered by the court. [I guess by that I meant…it’s a wrap. Done deal. Over. Sayonara school graduations…for now.]
In the Spring of 2004, my oldest son was in 8th grade. In the process of pre-registration for his first year in high school, I was invited to join the Palm Bay High School parent email network. This is an announcement list, not a discussion group. Only official announcements can be posted by the host of the group–the technology coordinator at PBHS.
On May 6, 2004, an announcement was posted to the list under the subject: Live Internet Broadcast of Palm Bay High’s Graduation!
The post read:
For those of you who have family members who would like to see Palm Bay High’s graduation ceremony at Calvary Chapel, but can’t be there in person, there is another option. As the camera starts rolling next Saturday, May 15, at approximately 9 am, you can click on the live broadcast on the link below.
This is new technology, but it may be worth the effort if you can not attend.”
I was a bit stunned. The excitement generated by this wonderful technology was clear. The thought that it might not be a good idea to put public school students in a church for the first major turning-point ceremony of their lives didn’t seem to exist. I questioned the obvious in my reply:
“Excuse me…are you saying that Palm Bay High School, a public school, is holding its graduation ceremony in a church?”
I paused a moment or two before I clicked on send. I wondered if this was something I really wanted to do. Did I want to start trouble before my son even entered the school? Would my activism affect him at school? Could I live with going to Calvary Chapel for graduation ceremonies? That was not something I wanted to do. After visiting the church’s website and viewing the picture of the sanctuary with what looked like a huge gold cross towering over the room, I decided the school staff had lost its cumulative mind and hit send.
I received a reply from the school secretary, Judy Kidd, who was kind enough to explain:
The reasons for graduating at Calvary Chapel of Melbourne:
1. Half the cost at FIT (Last years [sic] graduation)”
Ah, so not only were they using a church, they were paying them for the privilege.
“2. Stadium presents two problems [sic] (a) sound and (b) weather to worry about”
We pride ourselves on our “open-air” schools in Florida where the kids walk outside to change classes and can sit outside during lunch in many schools. We’ve graduated students outdoors for years [I certainly did it]; you would think we would have perfected the “rain date” system by now. But why bother with good planning when we can take advantage of the mega-church in town?
As to the sound system–it’s good enough for football games and good enough for PBHS to host the district-wide marching band festival for at least the past two years [turns out they do it every year], so it should be good enough for graduation.
Note that Ms. Kidd doesn’t mention any problems with the size of the stadium.
“3. Eau Gallie and Bay Side [sic] are also using this facility
4. Merritt Island has used First Baptist of Merritt Island for years”
So, it’s okay to do something bad if other people are doing it?
I responded to Ms. Kidd asking for more information and voicing my concerns, but she didn’t write back. [How rude!] Of course, I don’t believe for a minute that these were really “reasons” for PBHS to choose Calvary Chapel for graduation; these were just rationalizations made up after the fact.
On May 10, 2004 I sent an email to Pastor Balmer of Calvary Chapel. He didn’t write me back either. He’d dealt with me before. I guess he didn’t want to do that again!
It was in December of 2003 that I read an article in Florida Today about teachers managing to separate their religious beliefs from their teaching duties in public schools. One of the (or the only) teachers featured attended Calvary Chapel. She said she understood that not all the children and their parents believed what she did, and she was careful not to say anything that would infringe on their religious freedoms. She seemed to understand her role as an authority figure and representative of the government in the classroom.
I wrote to Pastor Balmer through the Calvary Chapel website and told him how impressed I was with this teacher. I said that if that was the kind of tolerance he was preaching at his church, I applauded him. His response was a sermon telling me I could never be satisfied or have meaning without god in my life, and an invitation to a showing of a Lee Strobel film at, where else, his church. No thanks, I said. I’ve read Strobel’s books and was not at all impressed with his so-called “investigative” reporting.
I suppose that was enough for Balmer to write me off as a hopeless heathen because he didn’t want to touch this issue of graduating public school students in his church. Most likely, I think too much of myself. Most likely, Balmer just didn’t want to get anywhere near the issue because he might give away his real motivations for renting his sanctuary to the schools by undercutting the fair-market price of a rental location.
On May 12, I sent an email to Principal John Tuttle of Bayside High School, Principal Thomas Sawyer of Eau Gallie High School, and Principal John Thomas of Palm Bay High School asking the same questions I’d asked of Kidd and Balmer, namely:
- Does the church have an auditorium? Or will the students graduate in the sanctuary?
- What steps will be taken to ensure the secular nature of the event?
I added a mention of my rights to this information, seeing as I’d been thwarted in my earlier attempts to get it.
[On May 13, Principal Tuttle responded saying, “We will consider your concerns as we make final graduation arrangements.”
But I’m not in his school district, so I didn’t expect anything there. I wrote him back expressing my concerns for violation of the Florida State Constitution and the freedom of conscience of non-Christian students…just in case it hadn’t occurred to him that some students at his school might not be Christians.]
On May 12, I received a disappointing reply from Principal Thomas at PBHS. His email grieved me both as a writer and as a rational person. There isn’t much to it. I copy it here exactly as it reads:
Dianna we are renting the facility as a meeting place and not as a church. It is not a religious ceremony. We are not asking or requiring the church to cover up any of their symbols, because again it is not being used as a church.
Well. What can I say? First, the casual “Dianna” and “John” make one wonder. Then, the question just begging to be asked: if you were using it as a church, you would ask them to cover their religious symbols?
I’d also like to say that something occurs later in this story that caused me to dislike Mr. Thomas very much and to think him rather rude.
On May 14, 2004, Florida Today listed the graduation venues of the local high schools.
- Melbourne High School graduated 500 students in its own stadium.
- Astronaut High School graduated 400 at Brevard Community College (BCC) in Titusville
- Eau Gallie High School graduated 450 at Calvary Chapel
- Satellite High School, 487 at its stadium
- Merritt Island High School, 400 at its stadium
- Palm Bay High School, 500 at Calvary Chapel
- Cocoa High School, 280 at its stadium
- Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High, 200 in their commons
- Rockledge High, 370 at McLarty Field
- Titusville High, 450 at Draa Field
- Westshore Jr./Sr., 132 at the King Center
- Bayside High, 450 at Calvary Chapel
Note that PBHS has the same number of graduates as Melbourne High, which used its own stadium.
On May 14, I wrote my friends at Space Coast Freethought Association the following note, attached to a second draft of the letter I planned to send concerning this issue:
“Well, I watched Eau Gallie. They were definitely there in the sanctuary with that HUGE gold* cross. One of the valedictorians talked about her faith in Jesus Christ and god, etc. While she was free to do so, doing so in front of that cross, in that sanctuary, only added to the spirit of the violation.”
On May 26, I sent a hardcopy letter to Dr. Richard DiPatri, Superintendent of Brevard County Schools. I copied the letter, via email in almost every instance, to the members of the Brevard County School Board, principals of Brevard County high schools, and John Glisch, editor of Florida Today. I objected to using a church for graduation on three main points:
- Paying the church a rental fee is a violation of the Blaine Amendment in the Florida State Constitution
- Using the church without covering its religious iconography leads to the impression of endorsement of Christianity
- Having public school students receive diplomas on an altar in front of an enormous cross violates their freedom of conscience as well as that of their watching parents and friends
On June 21, 2004 DiPatri sent me his reply. It was another disappointment for my high expectations for those in charge of my children’s educations.
Basically, DiPatri said that paying the church a rental fee is not a violation of the Florida State Constitution because we vote in churches. Again, just because other people are violating the Constitution doesn’t make it right. He could have cited some legal precedent that allows churches to charge fair-market rental fees for their use by public institutions, so long as they maintain a secular setting for the event. He was either not smart enough to do so, or didn’t want to concede that using Calvary Chapel without covering the cross was a violation of separation of state and church.
He also claimed that he does not believe “holding our high school graduation ceremonies in a church setting would lead a reasonable person to believe that the public school system endorses or supports religion or any particular religion.” In other words, “Ms. Narciso, you’re being unreasonable.”
He claimed that for our larger schools, the King Center and Florida Tech (Ms. Kidd’s FIT) are not suitable. And stadiums are out because of “weather, high temperatures, lightening, and rain.” [Hello! High temperatures, lightening, and rain are kinds of weather.]
Melbourne High School did experience bad weather in 2004. You’d think a little planning could have avoided that. Or you’d think, as Floridians, we’d suck it up and deal with it. Or better yet, the Christians could just pray the rain away. But instead, Melbourne High School decided to move their graduation ceremony to Calvary Chapel in 2005.
On July 30, 2004, I mailed Dr. DiPatri a response. I, again, emailed this response to all the usual people. I pointed out other schools ought to be able to use Melbourne High’s stadium, seeing as it was large enough for them. And I said that if our schools can’t find a large enough secular location, we’d better make due with what we have. Moving our children to a church is not the answer.
I told him it was perhaps true that only an unreasonable person would see endorsement in the church venue, but that maybe “it is only the majority view that the minority is unreasonable for requesting the maintenance of secularism in secular schools.” I said that one could assert “that a reasonable person would have no problem erecting, in the Christian facility, symbols of other religions (and no religion) of equal size to the enormous gold* cross of Calvary Chapel.” I told him I’d send him a picture of the American Atheists symbol when he was ready to construct them.
As to his claim that it’s okay to pay the church because we vote in churches, I said, “With all due respect, Dr. DiPatri, that’s like high school students saying, ‘it’s all right to do drugs, after all, other people do them.'” I pointed out that he didn’t respond to my point regarding the violation of the freedom of conscience of our students and their families in forcing them to choose between graduating in a church and staying home. I asked him to imagine the outcry from Christians if our schools graduated their students in the American Atheists convention center with a huge sign reading, “no gods” as the backdrop.
He didn’t write back. [Well, of course not. If you can’t counter someone’s factual points, you have to ignore them.]
I had, apparently, been dismissed. [Snap!]
So, according to the secretary of Palm Bay High School in 2004, the reasons for holding graduations at the church are: cost, weather/sound at the stadium not good enough, and everyone else is doing it. According to Dr. DiPatri in 2004, the reason for doing it is that the stadiums are vulnerable to weather conditions, and other secular locations just aren’t big enough. And yet, when Mr. Musgrove complained in 2005, Doug Layne, Vice Principal for facilities at PBHS (and in charge of the graduation venue) claimed that Florida Tech was unsuitable because “parking facilities there were not close enough to the building and the walkway from the parking facilities to the building was not covered.” (From the lawsuit) And finally, Dr. DiPatri, in 2005, told Americans United that Florida Tech could not be used because “the configuration of the facility does not allow many of the parents and guests to see their graduates walk and receive their diplomas.” (From the lawsuit)
I think the district needs to get its stories straight.
I spent the next year wondering what to do. I considered standing in front of the school some morning with a huge sign protesting. I needed to find more parents with the same concerns, but I didn’t know how. I suggested a column on the issue to the Verge in Florida Today, a section written by local high school students, but got no response. I almost had a guest column published in Florida Today. Mr. Glisch had even called me and asked me to send a picture of myself, which I did. But the hurricane season of 2004 changed all that. I never did hear from Glisch about the possibility of publishing it another time.
So, after a year of fretting, I decided on a brilliant plan of action: I’d write a letter to the editor! It’s sad, I know. But I was defeated. I’d let all those people who refused to write back to me to dismiss me and like a little girl, I retreated.
On Sunday, May 15, 2005, before I could write my letter, I read in Florida Today that Americans United for Separation of Church and State had filed a complaint with the Brevard County school board. I emailed AU that evening and was part of the case on Monday.
On Tuesday, before the lawsuit became public, my name was all over the news. Someone gave them copies of the letter I’d sent to Dr. DiPatri. At least one station actually showed the copy of the letter on the air. It wasn’t an email; it was a hardcopy letter. I assume it was DiPatri who gave it to them. They quoted from it and showed highlighted parts. They also quoted from the Space Coast Freethought Association website and showed our home page. I had reporters calling me all day and two reporters showed up at my door–one with a news van. I had to put a sign on my door saying, “No Press” and referring them to AU.
After the lawsuit became public, a friend of mine emailed to tell me that on May 18 at about 8:15 a.m. on AM 920, the host, Ed Dean, gave out my name, address, phone number, and directions to my house and encouraged his listeners to harass me. After emailing the station, my friend received a reply from John Harper, owner and president of WMEL Talk Radio, who assured him that Mr. Dean had been reprimanded.
Nobody showed up at my house that I know of. And if they called, the harassers didn’t leave a message. I think Mr. Dean’s followers are few and gutless.
During that short week before the first graduation ceremony took place, I visited Calvary Chapel and had a look around. The outside of the church is very un-church-like. This seems to be typical of the new mega-church architecture. Inside, the church looks like a civic center, very upscale and comfortable. They have a large commons area, a small food court with a cafe, a book store and gift shop, and a school.
The sanctuary has comfortable seats, and a balcony in back. Behind the altar there is an enormous wall of rugged, craggy rock. In the bottom center, a rectangle of that same rugged stone, about 20 feet high, juts out from the wall. And inset in the rectangle is the smooth, polished cross. *Because the smooth, polished stone is brown, and is lit by lights in the floor, it looks gold in the picture at the church’s website. But it’s even more impressive than gold.
Americans United attempted an injunction to get the schools to move the 2005 graduations out of the church. But the judge ruled that it was too late for that (even though the defendants said they could do so if they had to). Too many people misunderstood the entire proceeding. They seemed to think we had lost the case and that it was over. They didn’t understand that the injunction was just a part of the lawsuit. We lost the injunction, but the suit continued.
And of course, there were plenty of people who thought we were trying to stop the graduations from proceeding at all, when we just wanted them moved from the church. Part of the problem was knee-jerk reactions, and part of it was the press and the sloppy way they sometimes report stories.
The Space Coast Freethought Association website got a lot of hits and we shared our hate mail with our email list members for fun.
I met the Musgroves for the first time at Palm Bay High School, where we met so that Jennifer could sign some papers and I could give my signed copies to Mr. Musgrove for delivery to an attorney. While sitting in the front office waiting for Jennifer to arrive, the receptionist behind the front desk glared at us. [Seriously. Glaring. The woman was pissed at us.] Principal Thomas entered the room and Mr. Musgrove got up to talk to him. He approached with his hand out in a conciliatory gesture, but Thomas refused to take it. [My turn to be pissed. What an ASS! That’s right. I said it. The man behaved like an ASS to one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met in my life.] Mr. Musgrove spoke softly and apologetically. He said he didn’t intend the timing of the case to turn out the way it did [that we would be so close to graduations with the injunction request] but Thomas was rude to him and said he should drop the lawsuit. I could feel my anger rising. I almost got up and approached them. I wanted to tell Mr. Musgrove to stop apologizing to that man. Thomas was the one in the wrong; he was the one causing the problems, not us. Mr. Musgrove is a very polite, soft-spoken man. And Mr. Thomas is a bully in a suit. [Snap!]
On May 18, Sara Stern, spokeswoman for the Brevard County School District said in an article in Florida Today, “We don’t believe the ceremonies are unconstitutional…We’re prepared to go to court on that position.” In a May 19 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Stern is quoted saying, “…the bottom line is we’re still going to hold the ceremonies at Calvary Chapel unless a judge tells us we can’t.”
According to a story in Florida Today on May 19, 2005, during the injunction hearing, Middle District of Florida Judge Gregory Presnell “dismissed the district’s assertions that facility size or the potential for bad weather…were sufficient reasons to use the church. ‘It’s clear to me a secular facility without those icons should have been chosen in order to protect the interests of everyone, and to maintain the separation of church and state that has allowed religion in this country to flourish,’ he said.” [Halle-freakin-yulah! Finally a sane person.]
Everything went quiet for a while. Many people were mistaken in the notion that we had lost the lawsuit. But all we’d lost was the injunction. The suit proceeded to the settlement phase where the sides negotiate…or go to court. With all the bravado shown by the school board, I was sure they would continue with the suit, especially after they drew a judge who was conservative. But I heard from AU that a settlement negotiation was in progress and I eventually approved the points involved.
On October 26, 2005, James Dean, Florida Today reporter, called to tell me that the school board had voted to approve the settlement in this case. The headline in the paper the next day read: Church Graduations Banned. That’s not exactly true. But, hey, a good headline sells papers. I said a few things to Dean, but he was kind enough only to print a very bland statement. AU reminded me not to talk to reporters until the settlement was entered by the court because negative publicity could derail it even then.
Unfortunately, a new problem had arisen here in Brevard–Life Choices. You can read about our fight against it here. I was thrust back into the spotlight in another separation of church and state complaint.
When Dean’s article and a Florida Today editorial resulted in a block of letters at Florida Today, all angry with the school board for settling the case, I didn’t dare write in and say anything. Many people were fooled by the headline into thinking that there was no way we could use Calvary Chapel in the future. And of course, they didn’t care at all about the religious freedom of non-Christians. Another block of letters showed up in Florida Today several days later. This time, there was one letter with a positive slant on the issue from an SCFA member who told readers to complain to the church, not the school board, if they wanted to graduate there.
In making noise about the Life Choices program, I heard that County Commissioner Jackie Colon berated the school board for settling in the graduation case and dared them to act on the Life Choices complaint. And school board member Amy Kneesy told AM 1240, regarding Life Choices, the school board wouldn’t “buckle under” this time. Many people have contacted the county commission and school board about Life Choices only to find them steeped in Christianity and very much against separation of religion and government.
On November 12, 2005 Jennifer was given the “student activist” award of $1000 at the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention; she talked about her various fights for separation of church and state throughout her high school years. I spoke for a few minutes on the case and they surprised me with a “friend of the first amendment” award. It was fabulous!
Articles, etc. still available on the graduation case:
May 18 Judge allows graduation in church but sides with AU
Updated Oct 21, 2011 Musgrove vs. Brevard County School Board
Pat Campbell’s blog (we’re 2/3 of the way down under “Tyranny of the Minority”)
you can leave your comments here
In Loving Memory of one of My Heroes
Jennifer Diane Musgrove
May 14, 1987 – September 20, 2010