Preserving the baccalaureate

February 22, 1993

Graduation week brings a crowded schedule of activities, most of which represent a fun-filled final fling for departing seniors. Baccalaureate is an exception to that -- a pause for serious -- and sometimes spiritual -- contemplation on the future and on this major passage of life.

A recent Supreme Court decision has required high schools to abandon sponsorship of the traditional baccalaureate, the ecumenical spiritual service with homily, consistent with other judicial separations of religion from public schools.

This may be welcome to some graduates who are uncomfortable with the theology of the services, and the peer pressure to attend. Others will be grateful for one less event on a jam-packed graduation calendar. But the solemn event will be missed by many parents, and graduates, as a meaningful tradition of commencement activities.

Responding to that demand, some churches in Harford County are taking the initiative to fill the void by planning their own baccalaureate ceremonies in high schools. North Harford High School is the first to restore the program through efforts of the North Harford Baptist Church in Jarrettsville; ceremonies at other schools are in the planning stages. Rules permit an outside organization to hold such events in school buildings, as long as the school itself is not the sponsor.

The interested church groups represent a range of beliefs, Roman Catholic to fundamentalist Protestant, and several community and PTA groups will also participate. The service content should be accessible to all who choose to attend, and not narrowly sectarian, so as to validate the all-school character of the event.

Attendance at the ceremony was always voluntary; that was never the legal issue, even though participation was nearly unanimous. The legal problem was school planning of the event.

The decision to eliminate school-sponsored baccalaureates remains controversial. William Ekey, principal of Bel Air High School, has commented: "I understand the Supreme Court's point of view, but I think it goes too far." Others, we are sure, welcome the ruling.

Such decisions often invite over-reaction by school authorities and by local citizenry. Harford's resolution seems to avoid the church-state dilemma, through the joint efforts of private churches and public schools. We hope that this message of cooperation and goodwill will be reflected in the baccalaureate ceremonies that are held this spring.

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