The Last Baccalaureate Service?
In response to a request from Greenbelt Interfaith News for his views on baccalaureate services, Dr. Haynes wrote the following:
Under the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, public schools may not sponsor religious baccalaureate services. School officials would be well-advised to call in parent and community leaders and tell them that if they are interested in a baccalaureate service, then some of them will need to take responsibility for it. From that time on, it should be a privately-sponsored, voluntarily-attended event. It can be as religious as the organizers wish it to be. (In some communities, two or more community groups organize baccalaureate services in order to provide for different religious expressions.)
All planning for the service should be done by community people with no involvement by school officials. Administrators and teachers may participate on their own time and on a voluntary basis. If invited, there is no reason why they can't speak if they chose to do so. But teachers and administrators may not be required to participate. The community organizers also must take responsibility for inviting the students. Again, this is not an official school function. The baccalaureate may be announced at the school in the same way that other community events are announced. The event may also be held at the school (after school hours), as long as other community groups are given similar privileges.
If there is such a thing as a non-religious "baccalaureate", then the public school is free to sponsor it. But, by definition, baccalaureates are a religious service. Communities that take responsibility for organizing these events find that they are much freer to include genuine religious expression, including prayers and sermons, than they were when it was officially sponsored by the school. This approach upholds the First Amendment by keeping government out of religion, and it upholds religion by protecting the rights of religious people to express themselves openly and freely at this significant moment in the life of a young person.
Charles C. Haynes is Scholar in Residence at the First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education.