The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation will file suit against the Columbus City School District on Thursday, May 10, 2001. The suit, which will be filed in United States District Court in Columbus, alleges that the District has violated the constitutional separation of church and state by including religious hymns in its high school graduation ceremonies. The case is being brought by the ACLU on behalf of three high school students and their parents, who object to the use of religious music in those ceremonies. A press conference will be held at the time and place listed above, at which ACLU Legal Director Raymond Vasvari will be available to answer questions.
Last year, the graduation at Columbus Alternative High School featured an overtly Christian hymn entitled My Soul is Anchored in the Lord, while that at Fort Hayes High School featured a hymn called I’m Gonna Sign ‘Til the Spirit Moves In My Heart. Both were a part of the official program, and both contained decidedly religious lyrics.
The United States Supreme Court has held that public schools must avoid introducing expressly religious content into high school graduation ceremonies, holding that even a strictly non-denominational prayer to a graduation ceremony risked making children participate in religious ritual for fear of appearing non-conformist.
Religious programming also gives the impression that the school district is demonstrating its support for religion. “Both coercion and endorsement violate the separation of church and state required by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” said Christine Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.
Columbus school officials have openly ignored suggestions that they take steps to correct the problem on their own. In press statements made last summer, School Board President David Dobos rebuffed calls for a policy limiting the use of religious hymns at graduation, or setting guidelines for the use of sacred music in choral and curricular settings.
The ACLU suit also alleges that sacred music plays a disproportionate role in choral and music classes. Some choral events have featured only sacred music, or a program that, with a few exceptions, was all sacred music.