Sunday, May 12, 2013



The Supreme Court is currently considering a church and state case from the 7th Circuit. The case concerns the Elmbrook School District, which is located just outside Milwaukee. The district has been holding it graduation ceremonies in the evangelical Elmbrook Church for the last decade because the high school gym, in which the ceremonies had previously been held, is small and lacks air conditioning. The Elmbrook Church, on the other hand, is modern, large, bristles with modern amenities, and is therefore physically ideal for a graduation ceremony.

Several non-Christian parents have sued, however, stating that they didn’t want their kids’ graduation ceremonies held in a church that, not surprisingly, prominently displays a Christian cross. The 7th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs, the school district appealed, and the Supreme Court is considering whether to take the case. How this case will come out is, of course, important for church and state reasons but also, one might argue, as a test for how far our society has traveled down the road of the craziness that ensues when people look for reasons to be publicly offended and therefore aggrieved.

The focus of this post, however, is not on the outcome of the case, but on a statement made by Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs. Ms. Khan advised Christians to

“…stop and think about how it would feel if their high school graduation ceremonies were held in a Jewish temple or a Muslim mosque, where diplomas were handed out beneath a looming Star of David or Islamic crescent.”

(A side note…I’m not an expert on Judaism, but wouldn’t it be impossible to hold a graduation ceremony in a “Jewish temple”? Isn’t, or wasn’t, there only one temple, in Jerusalem, which is currently in ruins? Aren’t the modern places of worship in Judaism therefore not temples but synagogues? I might be wrong here; Jewish congregations are often called, for example, “Temple Beth Israel,” so maybe that is what Ms. Khan is referring to. But, technically, are these places really temples? I’m not trying to belittle Ms. Khan here; I’m genuinely curious because I’ve heard both sides of this question. Perhaps those of you with a stronger knowledge of Judaism can enlighten me and my readers.)

I could tell Ms. Khan directly how this Christian would feel if my, or my kids’, “graduation ceremony were held in a Jewish temple or a Muslim mosque, where diplomas were handed out beneath a looming Star of David or Islamic crescent.”…

I would be honored, and so would most Christians.

I would be honored that a Jewish, Muslim (or Buddhist, Hindu, or most any other faith) congregation would share their most sacred space, the place they go to worship God, with me. And I would take the opportunity to say a prayer not only for the graduates but also for the congregation that was so generous and magnanimous as to let us share their holy place.

Further, in the case of a graduation in a synagogue, I would be especially honored and awed. I would feel that my kid’s, or my, graduation was being held in the same setting that Jesus’ graduation would have been held if he indeed had graduated from school. (We don’t know whether Jesus had any formal education; while Mark 6, 2

“When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said ‘Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him?’”

and Matthew 13, 54, which is based on it, might be interpreted to mean that Jesus was wholly uneducated, they might merely indicate that he was not trained as a rabbi.)

Honored and grateful…that is how I would feel about a graduation ceremony in a synagogue or a mosque. And I suspect that most Jews and Muslims would, and do, feel the same way about a graduation ceremony held in a Christian church. Further, I suspect that everyone would share my feelings about holding graduation ceremonies in a hot, stuffy, cramped high school gym.


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