Dallas ISD, the ACLU and the Continuing Debate Over Graduations in Churches

"Hey God: Catch!"
"Hey God: Catch!"

Back in January, the Dallas Independent School District suffered some minor self-inflicted PR wounds when it tried to eliminate a policy that bans schools from holding graduations in places of worship, except for in "unusual" circumstances. After the ACLU did the whole ACLU thing -- stern press releases, vague threats of legal action, you know the drill -- the district backed down, and life went on.

Or so it seemed. But the issue is back, for the moment anyway. So is the ACLU.

Here's the background: The School for the Talented and Gifted, a magnet school in southern Dallas, has for years held its commencement ceremonies at nearby First Presbyterian Church. Before this year, no one really knew that was against the rules, or cared. So in January, the board considered scrapping the rule altogether.

That's when the ACLU showed up.

"DISD should tread cautiously in this area," Lisa Graybill, ACLU of Texas' legal director, said in a news release at the time. "The current policy provides a safeguard to ensure commencement exercises are held in appropriate, non-sectarian locations where all students, their families, and school personnel feel equally comfortable. Changing the policy could ultimately result in a constitutional challenge and costly litigation."

The district backed off, and so did the ACLU, figuring that the district would simply continue enforcing its policy: No graduations in places of worship unless there are no other options.

But, as trustees discussed at a board briefing last week, the TAG magnet still needs somewhere to hold its graduation.

The ACLU-approved policy requires schools to get get written consent from the superintendent, which can only be granted if, "due to unusual and extenuating circumstances, a religious site is the only viable location for commencement." But while TAG did ask for permission, district staff said at the briefing that there didn't appear to be unusual circumstances, and the church didn't appear to be the only viable location. The reason given for using the church? The announcements were already printed.

So instead of granting the school permission, Alan King, the interim superintendent, asked the board to simply waive the policy. The bureaucratic end-around -- "Hey, I know! Let's just keep the policy and ignore it when we feel like it!" -- caught a couple of trustees off-guard.

"To circumvent the superintendent to bring it to the board ... is really a violation of the policy," trustee Carla Ranger said at last week's briefing. Trustee Eric Cowan agreed: "This doesn't need to come to the board. I not really sure why we're wasting time on this."

The board soon tabled the discussion and left it be voted on next week. For now, it's in the "consent agenda," destined to be voted on en masse with a slew of other proposals. But Ranger has already vowed to pull it for a separate discussion, which the ACLU will no doubt be watching.

Holding graduation in a worship space is "alienating to students who are not of the religious persuasion of the building," Stephanie Bauman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, told me yesterday, after watching footage of last week's board briefing. "It's not inclusive of everyone's religious beliefs. It has the potential to ostracize, and that shouldn't happen at a graduation."

The board's policy, she says, "is a reasonable way to balance the religious freedom of students with schools' needs to have a viable place to hold a graduation. ... They can't meet the policy, so now they're asking for special treatment to just not be subject to the policy."

To be sure, DISD has bigger problems than where its kids graduate, starting with whether its kids graduate. And it seems unlikely that anyone will cry foul to the ACLU, or that the ACLU will make a show out of one little graduation. But if someone does cry foul, you can count on the ACLU doing that whole ACLU thing, and you never know what happens from there.

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