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After Threat Of Lawsuit, Lake Norman Charter School Will Move Graduation From Church

The Lake Norman Charter School will move its high school graduation from The Park Church after receiving a warning letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

For the last seven years, the Lake Norman Charter School has held its spring graduation at The Park Church in Charlotte.

But a Washington D.C.-based group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent the school a letter in August, saying the taxpayer-funded school was violating the Constitution by holding the ceremony in a church.

The school said it didn't believe it did anything wrong since the graduation did not mention or incorporate any religious ceremonies. The only references to religion were the physical items in the church.

“No parents have complained to us directly," said Sara Lay, the school's director of community relations. "I think it’s worth mentioning we have a long-standing relationship with the church for the past seven years.”

She said the school has students from many religions and has no religious curriculum.

But Ian Smith, a staff attorney with Americans for Separation of Church and State in Washington D.C., said someone complained about the ceremony.

“A local person who attended the Lake Norman Charter School graduation in the church contacted us, and very well thought this might be a violation," he told WFAE. "We took a look at it. It is a constitutional violation, and we agreed to write a letter.”

Smith said it’s common for charter schools to use religious buildings and he said his group has sent four warning letters to other schools since June 2017. He said there may be a difference between being in a church and being in a church and praying, but they are both wrong.

“I don’t want to say no because there is a distinction," he said. "One is more passive and one is more active. But legally, for the purposes of the Constitution, they would both be violations.”

In its letter to the school, the group said that “religious messages and iconography, including two large banners with Bible verses, were visible to attendees.” It said that using the church for graduation disrespects the beliefs and students and their families” and violates the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits any law respecting an establishment of religion.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents the Lake Norman area, said he thinks having children exposed to a cross and other religious artifacts should be allowed.

He said that's a "far cry from a minister officiating a graduation with a religious message." 

But, he added, "simply being in a building that serves as a church is a bit of a stretch.”

Lay said school officials believe they could go to court and win, but it said it’s not worth the time and effort. For now, they're looking for a new location for the graduation.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.