Faith vs. graduation? Pastors say public schools shouldn’t hold Sunday ceremonies

A group of local pastors says Wake County families shouldn’t be forced to choose between their faith and attending Sunday morning high school graduation ceremonies.

The Raleigh Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance calls Sunday morning graduations “disrespectful and also insensitive to all the Wake County citizens who worship on Sunday mornings.” The group of predominantly African-American ministers has asked the Wake school system to stop scheduling graduations before 1 p.m. on Sundays.

“Slowly, secular institutions and businesses have encroached upon Sunday morning worship for financial gain, convenience and for other reasons,” the Rev. William Newkirk said on behalf of the alliance at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “We don’t think public schools should join those ranks.”

North Carolina’s largest school system isn’t the only group being targeted by the ministers. The Rev. David Forbes, president of the alliance, said in an interview Wednesday that the ministers also plan to ask businesses to not open on Sunday mornings and civic groups to stop scheduling Sunday morning activities.

Many communities used to have “blue laws” prohibiting commercial activities on Sundays, but most of the laws were phased out by the end of the 20th century.

School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the district will look at eliminating Sunday graduations.

“We will definitely discuss it as a board to go back to staff to see what options exist to move it in the future,” she said.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, called it an “inherently selfish and unreasonable request” to avoid scheduling graduations on Sunday mornings. She said it would be promoting religion if the school board accommodated the pastors.

“The idea that a family couldn’t miss church one day out of the year is preposterous,” Gaylor said. “They could skip church for this one important event.”

A complaint from Gaylor’s group resulted in Wake barring several school choirs from performing at last year’s Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration.

The Wake school system has 29 graduation ceremonies scheduled over the next month, starting Friday and running to June 14.

Graduations are scheduled based on a variety of factors, including school calendars, state testing windows, availability and cost of facilities, and the size of school graduation classes, according to Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for academic advancement. She said Wake is paying about $117,000 in facility rental costs this year for graduations.

Moore said Sunday graduation ceremonies have been held on and off for several years. Four Sunday ceremonies are scheduled this year on June 11, including two before 1 p.m.

“It affects the sensibility of the community,” said Forbes, dean of the Shaw University Divinity School and pastor emeritus of Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh. “It puts parents in a bad place, parents who are accustomed to celebrating their faith but who must choose between loyalty to their child and to their own churches.”

Newkirk, who is pastor of Oak City Baptist Church in Raleigh, said Sunday morning graduations also affect church leaders who can’t attend to show their support for the graduates.

“We believe there should still be some things that are sacred in our communities and in the lives of its citizens,” he said.

There aren’t any plans to change this year’s graduation schedules.

“At this late date, rescheduling any graduation dates and/or times would be nearly impossible given the significant last-minute inconvenience and hardship that would be caused to students and families who have been making plans since August of 2016,” Moore said.

Moore said school officials will consider the possible costs of not scheduling any graduations on Sunday next year.

“We are certainly sensitive to the needs and concerns voiced by members of our faith-based community,” Moore said. “In the coming weeks district leadership will be reviewing available options for scheduling 2018 graduation ceremonies.”

Forbes said he’s hopeful that Sunday graduations will be gone after this year.

“I respect the right of people who don’t want to practice a faith,” Forbes said. “But the right of people to practice their faith on Sunday needs to be respected.”

Instead of rescheduling graduations, Gaylor said churches could add Sunday afternoon or evening services if they’re worried that families can’t attend in the morning. She said few families are likely to be affected by Sunday morning graduations more than once in their lives.

“They should be bending over backward to celebrate with their congregations rather than putting up stumbling blocks for this important event,” she said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui