Greenbelt Interfaith News
    Greenbelt Feature

    July 31, 1997

    The Last Baccalaureate Service?
    Roosevelt High School Seeks to Revive a Dying Tradition
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    The back of the high school auditorium was filled with parents readying cameras, chiding squirming children, and sedately reading newspapers. In front of the seats on the left side of the auditorium, a woman resolutely shushed the school's young choir members as the Eleanor Roosevelt High School Chamber Orchestra struck up the first chords of J. S. Bach's "Gigue." The auditorium was ready for Roosevelt's graduating seniors – two-thirds of the seats had been reserved for them.

    The seniors walked down the aisle, smiling awkwardly at family members. They filled up the first row and the second row, and few young women trickled into the third row. Then they stopped. Out of 695 seniors graduating in 1997, about 50 had shown up for the ceremony.

    It was a strange sight for a graduation ceremony – but of course this was not a graduation ceremony. This was a baccalaureate service, a worship service for graduates, and attendance was voluntary. Most of the seniors had voluntarily stayed away.

    But, then, the fact that Roosevelt High School holds such a service is a marvel in itself.


    Worship at public high school graduations has been under attack for many years by Americans concerned that such religious exercises on public occasions weaken the nation's separation of church and state. Throughout the continued debate over what part religion should play in civil society, baccalaureate services have been largely ignored. Yet such services are accepted as constitutional even by groups that are opposed to the use of prayers in graduation ceremonies.

    In 1995, for example, a statement was signed jointly by a number of groups that are usually found at opposite ends of the court room: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Legal Society, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Association of Evangelicals . . . All 35 legal and religious groups had come together to publish "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." The statement represents the common legal ground agreed upon by the quarrelling parties. On the issue of baccalaureate services, the statement says:

      School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor may they organize a religious baccalaureate ceremony. If the school generally rents out its facilities to private groups, it must rent them out on the same terms, and on a first-come first-served basis, to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services, provided that the school does not extend preferential treatment to the baccalaureate ceremony and the school disclaims official endorsement of the program.

    The burden for continuing the tradition of baccalaureate services thus passes from schools to the community. Questions remain, however: Should communities sponsor baccalaureate services? Can the services take place in a lawful manner? And do students really gain anything from this public ceremony?


    "Today, within this celebration, members of various faiths will partake in a sharing of values." The Rev. Stephen H. Mentz, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, stood on the auditorium stage at Eleanor Roosevelt High School as he recited from the baccalaureate service's "Statement of Purpose." "Each of us represents a different religious tradition. Each of us subscribes to a different set of beliefs. Yet we are all here united in a common cause because of our fundamental respect and acceptance of one another. We hope that you will each come away from this service with the belief that the differences between people should not separate them from the common society they live in."

    As Pastor Mentz finished, he was replaced at the podium by the Rev. Jack Wineman of Berwyn Presbyterian Church in College Park. "Do not remember the sins of my youth," Rev. Wineman recited from Psalm 25, looking meaningfully at the high school students before him – including several whispering choir members.


    In the eyes of Charles C. Haynes, a Vanderbilt University scholar who has studied the issue of religion and public schools, baccalaureate services are the perfect solution to the nation's problem of finding a way to include religion in public school life. "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," he comments. "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."

    This is not to say that baccalaureate services provide completely smooth sailing in legal waters. The ACLU, which signed the 1995 statement saying that baccalaureate services could take place on school grounds, states in several of its publications that the services must not take place on school grounds. The devil is in the details.


    "Praise the Lord," sang the choir members. "Praise the Spirit, Three in One."

    The Eleanor Roosevelt High School Combined Choir had chosen a South African song which was multicultural, though hardly interfaith, what with its reference to the Christians' Trinitarian concept of God. Most of the service's readers, on the other hand, chose to recite passages or prayers that could be accepted by several religious faiths: Jacinda Gantt, senior class president, recited a religious poem; Delores Downs, lay leader of the Catholic Community of Greenbelt, read from Psalms 138 and 139; Rae Algaze, representing Mishkan Torah Synagogue, prayed to "our God and the God of our ancestors"; and the Rev. Daniel Hamlin, pastor of Greenbelt Community Church (United Church of Christ), led the congregation in an annually recited Statement of Affirmation that just barely managed to mention God at the end.


    If baccalaureate services have declined in number in recent years, they are far from dead. In June 1993, Phi Delta Kappa conducted a survey of 1,491 school districts in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The survey, which was published in the October 1993 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, revealed that 1066 districts (71%) had allowed prayer in some form during activities associated with high school graduation. High schools in 654 districts (44%) held baccalaureate services that were not sponsored by the districts.

    In Greenbelt on June 2, Eleanor Roosevelt High School joined that list of statistics as it continued its annual tradition of holding a non-school-sponsored baccalaureate service. But this tradition could end at any time; the service cannot not take place without the consent of the school officials, the religious communities, and most of all, the students themselves.


    "There once was lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved . . ."

    James L. Sturdivant of the Greenbelt Bahá'í Community was now reading from the Bahá'í sacred text, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys. "Then one night he could live no more," he continued, "and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: ‘Surely this watchman is Izra'il, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.' His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden. And there he beheld his beloved . . .

    "Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger."

    The congregation members were silent, as they had been throughout the service; they had quietly applauded each speaker, and it was hard to tell what they were thinking. Over to the left, some of the young choir members, who had come to this service only in order to perform their single song, were openly fidgeting.


    The State of Maryland does not have an official policy on baccalaureate services, according to Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. Prince George's County does, however. In January 1992, School Superintendent Edward M. Felegy issued guidelines on baccalaureate services in the county high schools. The guidelines read as follows:

      a. No Baccalaureate Service shall be organized by any school staff. Nor shall there be any participation or collaboration by school staff with any non-school based group or organization that schedules such a Baccalaureate Service.

      b. In the event a non-school based group or organization develops and schedules such a Baccalaureate Service:

      (i) The publicity for the event must be done exclusively by the sponsoring group or organization.

      (ii) The invitations to individual graduating seniors must be issued and paid for by this group or organization.

      (iii) The service shall not be held during school time and can only be conducted on school property if there is compliance with Administrative Procedure 1330, After School Use of Facilities, and the School Facility Use Application and Permit Part I and Part II is obtained.

      (iv) Participation or attendance must be optional.

    Leroy J. Tompkins says that he has received no enquiries about the policy during his two years as chief divisional administrator of instruction for the county schools. "The policy seems to work," he concludes.


      Wade in the water;
      Wade in the water, children;
      Wade in the water;
      God's gonna trouble the water.

    The choir was not performing this time – the singers consisted of the congregation, following the direction of the Rev. Dr. Whit Hutchison of Mowatt Memorial United Methodist Church. As the congregation settled into silence once more, the minister said, "Commencement doesn't mean ‘the end'; commencement means ‘the beginning.' Commencement is a time of celebration, of excitement, of opportunity, but it's also a little bit frightening. And in a crisis where you don't know what the future holds, one of the things you do is reach down and look for something solid to hold onto. I take it that that is what the senior class had in mind when they chose the theme of this baccalaureate service and called this ‘Make it last forever' – that we should focus on things that last."

    He grinned and added, "I'll relieve all of your minds and hearts and tell you that I didn't take this to be the directive for my address: ‘Make it last forever.' . . ."


    Richard Carrington, advisor to this year's senior class, was in charge of Roosevelt's participation in the service arrangements. That participation, he is eager to explain, was virtually nonexistent.

    "It's pretty much in the hands of the Greenbelt interfaith community," he explains. "We are supposed to be separated from it because of the Supreme Court ruling. The [interfaith community] does ask me for a couple of students to do the readings, and I help to find them. It's in the hands of the faith community after that." He adds, "At the graduation rehearsal, we passed out flyers telling the time of the baccalaureate service."


    Flyers prepared by the Greenbelt Clergy Association, it turns out. But by passing out such flyers, is the school helping to "issue" the invitations to seniors? Is it taking part in publicizing the event? Or is it serving as a neutral conduit of information from an outside group?

    Mr. Carrington's remarks, along with those of other Roosevelt officials, show how sensitive the school is to the legal implications of the baccalaureate service. "I don't want to get into hot water or get sued," said one employee in declining comment on the school's arrangements. Because of this sensitivity, Roosevelt's administrators have evidently taken great care to try to ensure that the school maintains its distance from the service.

    The devil is in the details, though, and schools like Eleanor Roosevelt face the arduous task of pioneering a new type of baccalaureate service. If the schools succeed, the new baccalaureate service may help bring an end to the quarrels over the place of prayer in public schools. The pioneering journey may end in two other ways, however. It may be that schools will use baccalaureate services as a surreptitious way in which to sponsor worship . . . or it may be that schools will decide that the legal hassle of such services is not worth their trouble, and the last connection will vanish between students' public education and students' religious lives.


    "I'm a participatory educator," said Rev. Hutchison. "I need one volunteer from the senior class. This will be relatively painless— All right, you over there."

    Quiana Pratt of Mitchellville, whose hand had shot up immediately, joined Rev. Hutchison at the podium. "Can you tell everyone what this is?" he asked Ms. Pratt, showing her an object.

    "Money," she replied.

    "It's a basket full of change – spare change from about nine months. Will you reach into this basket with both your hands and take just as much as you can hold?"

    Amidst giggles from the other students, Ms. Pratt scooped up two fists-full of change and waited expectantly. "Now will you take this material and read page five?" Rev. Hutchison asked, holding out to her the script of his address. Ms. Pratt looked bemused for a moment, then began to put the money back into the basket; Rev. Hutchison stopped her. "Tell you what," he said, "just go over there and help out with that cello over there. Play us a quick tune."

    Ms. Pratt looked at the orchestra cello, then at the money in her hands, then at the cello again – then she swiftly offered Rev. Hutchison the money she was holding.

    A moment later, she was leaving the stage with the money-filled basket in her hand. "Buy your mama something nice!" the minister instructed her. Then he turned back to the congregation, showed them his fists, and said, "With your hands like this, there are some things you can do. You can punch that sucker out. You can hold onto what you've got for all you're worth. But you can't receive anything that comes your way unless you open them up." And his hands opened like flowers blooming.


    The origin of Roosevelt's baccalaureate service is not lost in misty memory. The tradition began in 1970 when the Rev. Ed Birner, formerly pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, visited his niece in Kansas and discovered that her school had a baccalaureate service. It seemed like a nice idea, he says.

    The Roosevelt administration was "very open" to the idea, Rev. Birner reports, and Greenbelt's clergymen were happy to be involved. As for the students: "Every year, we offered it to the senior class. We said, ‘We're here. We would be happy to do for it if you wanted.'" Every year so far, Roosevelt's seniors have accepted the offer.


    "The world out there says, ‘Winner takes all!'" cried Rev. Hutchison. "The world out there tells us that ‘Do unto others' is a nice sentiment, but in a world of finance and business and markets and job retention, you better ‘do unto others' before they do unto you. Folks, the pressure to live your life holding on so you won't lose what you already got so you can get some more is simply fierce out here! . . ."

    "I want to tell you the story of one of my friends who didn't make it. I think of Avery Greene every now and then. I was a young pastor, and I worked in a little, inner-city church in Atlanta, Georgia, and like most young pastors, my job was Youth Group. . . . And Avery was one of the brightest kids in the group: star of the basketball team, a good student in school. Even though he came from a poor family, he was making it.

    "I found out after I had left this church and come back to visit that my friend Avery had graduated from high school, beaten the odds in his community – and he was looking for a job, and it took a while. And one day he was hanging out with some of his friends in a pool room in the neighborhood. Maybe he had a little too much to drink. He bet a dollar more than he had in his pocket in a pool game, and a squabble ensued, a knife was drawn, and Avery's life literally leaked out on that bar-room floor. For a dollar. . . .

    "Folks, how many times have I wished that we had touched Avery with the difference between this – " he showed his fists – "and this." And he opened his hands once more.


    The Greenbelt Clergy Association is the official sponsor of the service; this year, James Fischer, secretary of the Greenbelt Bahá'í Community, was in charge of arrangements for the first time.

    "I called up one of the senior class advisors and asked what the process was for arranging the service," he says. "I was told that the process was that the school didn't organize it."

    Being in charge of arrangements "was a fascinating process," he adds. "I learned why [the other members of the Clergy Association] backed out."

    In fact, the difficulties of arranging the service are so great that the Clergy Association members debated this spring whether to continue the service for another year. Mr. Fischer found his own part in the arrangements particularly delicate because it was not clear to him where to draw the line between the school administration being involved in the service and the administration not taking part. "I was concerned about putting [the administrators'] names on the program," he says, "but that seemed not to be a problem, so I don't know where the line is."

    Despite the difficulties, he remains an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt's baccalaureate service, saying that he grew up in an "itty-bitty town" where the high school was the center of the community. Taking part in the service, he says, recaptured that feeling for him.

    "The service seems to me so fragile," he concludes. "I put all this effort into it because if we stopped doing it, we wouldn't get this back."


    Around the auditorium, the congregation members had followed Rev. Hutchison's instruction to take each other's hands. "In this gesture, in this movement toward one another, lies the seeds of a new world," said the minister. "Hang onto it! In this action, you open yourselves to what we came here for. Don't let go! In this reaching out, we begin to fulfill what the good Lord – the Great Spirit – wanted for all of us: to be fulfilled, not separately, but together. . . .

    "You graduates, what you hold in your hands is something that will last forever. We will pass away like grass, like the Bible says – we individuals. But that connection is beyond any one of us. Hold onto it, dear ones, hold onto it. When the touch of the hand is gone, hold onto it in your hearts.

    "Peace. Salaam. Shalom aleichem."

    As Rev. Hutchison finished his address, there was a moment of dead silence; then the congregation exploded into thunderous applause. The orchestra members abandoned their instruments in order to clap, the seniors wildly applauded, and on the left side of the auditorium, where the youngest and least involved students of the high school sat, several choir members jumped to their feet and began screaming with delight.

    Related Links

    Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law (1995)

    Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education. By Charles C. Haynes (1994).

    Next Page

    The Last Baccalaureate Service? Some Thoughts on How the Tradition Might Continue. By Charles C. Haynes.

    HOME 1997 Articles

    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson