Graduations are rife with all sorts of traditions — the caps and gowns, tassels and diplomas — but there’s one thing that’s absent from public school graduation ceremonies: religion.
For many parents and church groups, that religious component is important, so they work hard to fill the gap with separate baccalaureate ceremonies.
“(The baccalaureate ceremony is) just an opportunity for the church to reach out to the community,” said Leslie “Les” Albert, a full-time teacher at Camas High School and part-time pastor at the Grace Church who helps organize the event for Camas students and families.
“Graduation is a big deal, especially in Camas, and the church wants to honor those seniors and encourage them with some scripture and remind them that God loves them,” he said.
This year, students and families from 15 of Clark County’s 36 schools and programs with graduating seniors will hold such ceremonies. Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School canceled theirs last week after a lack of RSVPs.
While many schools host the event off-site at a church, nine public schools are holding their baccalaureates on-site at the school. That includes some schools in the Evergreen Public Schools district, such as Heritage High School and Union High School in Camas. (A list of all local graduation and baccalaureate ceremonies, including dates, times and locations, can be found here.)
Baccalaureate ceremonies have been around for hundreds of years, thought of as the religious ceremony precluding the main graduation ceremony. Over the years, some schools in the U.S. have opted to drop the practice or hold more general awards ceremonies to avoid the perception that the school is hosting a religious event.
To avoid violating the Constitution, according to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, school employees can’t help organize a baccalaureate service “while working in their official capacity.” Public schools also can’t support the ceremony financially whatsoever.
“Parent groups organize it,” said Sherry Temple, a parent of a former Evergreen Public Schools student who graduated last year. Temple, who also works for Heritage High School as a counselor, but was not speaking to The Columbian on behalf of the school, but as a parent, has attended several of the baccalaureate ceremonies. “It’s not the school, it’s your parent groups. It’s a non-denominational religious ceremony; there’s no specific religion that’s depicted or honored.”
Because parent groups organize it, some years a baccalaureate ceremony might not be held at all. Evergreen High School held a baccalaureate ceremony in 2014 and 2012, but not in 2017, 2016, 2015 or 2013, according to the ceremonies reported annually for publication in The Columbian. They also aren’t holding one this year.
“Everyone is welcome to participate but no one is required,” Temple said. She said that students who participate come in a procession, dressed in their caps and gowns, in front of what Temple said is usually a “packed house.” There are musical numbers by the school choir, sometimes poems are read, and there is a keynote speaker — usually a reverend or someone in the community. She recalled that Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, was a speaker at a recent year’s baccalaureate.
Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies holds a senior awards ceremony that has no religious overtones. It honors students who have achieved a grade point average of 3.3 and above, in what the school’s career specialist, Jennifer Pongracz, described as a less formal ceremony from the main commencement.
“There’s a separation of church and state, so we can’t make it religious,” she said. “Whose religion would we be following?”
At Seton Catholic College, a local private school, the baccalaureate is a formal Catholic Mass. Students, their family and faculty members are required to attend.
“It’s faith-based; it’s a normal Mass. It’s a way of acknowledging the academic side as well as their spiritual side, and then giving them the diploma to send them out to the world,” said Ed Little, the founding president and principal of Seton Catholic College. “It’s our way in the Catholic faith of sending our seniors off into the world, well grounded in their faith and service to others.”
Hoping to continue
Camas High School’s baccalaureate ceremony is organized by and held at Grace Church. The Foursquare Church is a larger organization with participating churches of the evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination with headquarters in Los Angeles.
The ceremony is a Christian event. The church sends out invitations to all the graduating students’ families each year, and some Christian students help in organizing the ceremony.
“Christian kids step up every year,” Albert said, emphasizing that he’s careful to separate his roles as public school teacher and part-time pastor at Grace Church.
He said that there are worship songs, prayer, testimonies, and a message from the Bible and “usually a blessing over the class to wrap it up.” About half of the graduating class ends up attending, he estimated.
Albert said that if other religions wanted to organize a baccalaureate, “I think they’d have the right to be able to do that.”
He said that he hopes the Christian ceremony is able to continue into the future, adding that he feels “Christianity is becoming more and more under attack.”
“So I can’t really say what the future holds, but I know (Grace Church) is committed to doing this because we see great value in honoring the kids,” Albert said. “So, until it becomes illegal, I would say that it’s going to continue. Hopefully that never happens, but you never know.”