Normally during the holiday season, legal challenges to the concept of separation of church and state have to do with city halls with a nativity scene on the lawn, or religious-based Christmas music being performed at a public school.
But this year the debate in Georgia is taking a different front. The group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has threatened to file a lawsuit against Cherokee County school officials unless the school system abandons the practice of using a church facility for high school graduation ceremonies.
The same thing takes place in Hall County at the end of every school year, when graduation services are held at the expansive Free Chapel facilities.
The executive director of the group says such litigation would not be a first for the organization, which previously has fought similar battles in Connecticut and Wisconsin, losing one lawsuit and winning the other. Both decisions are under appeal.
A rabbi in Cherokee County has spoken out against the current practice, saying some who might attend such a service in a place of worship would be uncomfortable doing so. AUSCS argues that holding a public high school graduation in a church violates the line of separation between government and religion as promised by the U.S Constitution.
Like the Bible, the U.S. Constitution is subject to many different interpretations. On this particular issue, our interpretation is that those challenging the use of religious buildings as an appropriate site for school events should find weightier matters for debate. It's a common practice, does no harm and should be a nonissue.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says this: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... "
Those 16 words have spawned millions of others as the nation's courts have tried to define exactly where the line should be drawn between the role of government and that of religious belief.
The original intent seems to be fairly clear. The nation's founding fathers thought it important that there not be a government-sanctioned religion imposed upon the people, and conversely that the people should be free to exercise their own religious beliefs without fear of government intervention.
It's a long way from that fairly simple concept to the outlawing of Christmas displays in public parks, but that's where we've gone as a nation.
The often mentioned "wall of separation" between the two is generally attributed to writings of Thomas Jefferson. James Madison as well was adamant that there should be appropriate distance between the state and religious sectors. Neither, we believe, would have a problem with a bunch of high school kids and their parents sitting under the roof of a place of worship for a totally secular graduation ceremony.
For school systems, the use of large church facilities is often a very practical way of allowing big crowds of people to attend graduation. Other than the fact that the roof and walls belong to a church, there's no religious connection between the building and the graduation service.
Does the fact that a religious image, or an icon that might be hanging on a wall, might make someone uncomfortable create an unconstitutional conflict between the religious sector and the public schools?
We would argue not, and would add that purely as a practical matter students graduating from high school are likely to find themselves in many situations as adults where the signs and symbols of other religions are evident, and need to learn to cope with any discomfort they might produce.
By the same token, we don't believe a nativity scene sitting on the lawn of a city hall represents an effort by the government to force a particular religion upon the people; nor does a menorah display at a public library; nor the sounds of traditional Christmas carols being performed in the lobby of a county courthouse.
There is a difference between acknowledging the existence of a set of religious beliefs and an institutional effort by the government to force those beliefs upon the people it governs.
To the more specific issue of whether public schools should hold graduation ceremonies in religious facilities, we would offer this: Schools are not required to hold graduation ceremonies, parents and students are not required to participate in those ceremonies, so how then could participation in a totally voluntary event be construed as a government effort to force anything on anyone?
We suspect that those who have seen loved ones die in the fight for religious freedom under a government controlled theocracy elsewhere in the world would laugh at the issues that concern the AUSCS and some of the nation's jurist.
Sometimes a building is just a building. And sometimes groups such as the AUSCS engage in a controversial cause in order to justify their own existence rather than out of any need to right a social wrong.