Apr 26, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Graduation

As most readers know, except for the recent Supreme Court case involving CLS Law Student Ministries, I don't spend a ton of time on this blog talking about church/state issues or religious liberty litigation. But a USA Today piece caught my attention this morning.

It seems that public schools are looking for larger venues in which to hold graduation ceremonies, and they are looking to local churches-- what we used to call megacurches-- to meet that need. While the churches seem to be open to this use of their facilities, the Usual Suspects-- those who think that public displays of Christian symbols are likely to offend and are therefore unconstitutional-- object to these "public ceremonies in a private religious space." The article quotes the local ACLU as worried that families will have to choose between graduation and "being subjected to religious symbols."

The irony is that the churches don't even "look like churches," and so they may not actually cause anyone to be "subjected" to "religious symbols." One pastor says that his church is a "generic space": "If you . . . walked into the main auditorium, you would not recognize yourself as being in a church."

This case is waaaaaay more interesting for its ironic discussion of "holy space" (and in my view, our failures to reflect the glory of God in our worship spaces) than for any constitutional issue.

UPDATE June 1: A federal judge has ruled it unconstitutional to hold graduation ceremonies in a church, even when the religious symbols are covered. Story from WSJ blog with links here.


  1. I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, symbols can inspire worship and can engage our minds. On the other hand, graven images... maybe generic rooms are good.

    I am not trying to stir the pot over a protestant/catholic controversy, but I want to raise a situation that I have experienced which caused me to think that symbols perhaps ought not be the place to display God's glory. In one of my classes this past semester, a girl, among several of my Catholic friends in the class, brought a statue of Jesus on the cross with a coin depicting John Paul II's face at the foot of the cross. I tried my best not to think about it too much during the test, but afterwards she told us in the hallway that we all did well on the test because of the statue. Of course, there was some joking as much as mysticism in her tone, but the impression she and the other students gave to me was that they somewhat believed those words.

    I've been through some of the major prophets this past semester, and all I could think about, and still think regarding the situation, is the verses that talk about how people who have these images are as dumb as the statues themselves. What makes

    Now, I know that I have, in my statement above, disregarded some questions about the usage of symbols such as a bare cross or a triangle to represent the trinity. I do believe these symbols can and should be used properly to engage people's minds in worship. (note: we don't need to get into Jesus on or off the cross, though vigorous debate here probably can and should be made over it). However, I think it is more important for people to realize God's handiwork in every place apart from some place that man has called holy, although you are probably right to say that we have failed to reflect God's glory in these areas. Is there value to such "holy space?"

  2. Thanks for the post, Mike.

    What jumps to my head is a line from "The Incredibles", "When everyone is super, then no one will be."

    If everything is generically sacred, then nothing is.

    If there's nothing to differentiate a Christian space from, say, the state department of motor vehicles or the mall, then why go to that particular space at a particular time to do something as particular (and peculiar) as Christian worship?

    And also, if there's no difference in our spaces and places, then what practical difference will there be between our people, i.e. the Christian disciple, and anybody else?

  3. What if no "space" should be sacred? Personally, I find a kitchen or living room with no special aesthetics but fully equipped with brothers and sisters earnestly seeking the Lord more sacred than any cathedral in which I have visited (granted I have only been to a couple). The hearts and minds of other believers spurn me on to love and good works more than aesthetics can.

    If Jesus does not create a difference in our lives without aesthetics, then are we really interacting with Jesus?

    Also, in what ways are we narrowing the scope of Christian worship? The scope is narrow in that you must worship Jesus and no one and nothing else. However, Paul widens the methods available for worship; i.e. Colossians 3:17.

    So, in what ways are the "spaces" connected to your life as a Christian? I suspect they play small roles. Can they be essential?