An online charter school headquartered in Maumee is under fire by a Washington advocacy group over the school’s planned use of a church for its graduation ceremony.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter Thursday to Ohio Virtual Academy officials, raising concerns over the school’s plans to use the World Harvest Church for its June 7 ceremony. The group criticizes what it considers a violation of the separation of church and state, and the use of a church tied to a pastor, Rod Parsley, who has made “numerous anti-gay comments in his sermons, speeches, and writings.”
A pair of students — one gay, the other an atheist — complained to the organization about the use of the church.
“Holding a public-school graduation ceremony in such a venue raises serious constitutional problems, so we write to ask you to move the ceremony to a secular location,” the letter states.
The school, which last year reported more than 12,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said 4,000 people were expected to attend the ceremony. Other sites that could handle the projected crowd were considered, but were unavailable.
The academy’s high school principal, Kyle Wilkinson, said in an email that it is “common for public schools to use faith-based facilities for their graduations.” He said the Pickerington and Hamilton school districts planned to use the church this year for their ceremonies.
The church will remove or conceal religious material, Mr. Wilkinson said, and the location was chosen only because it could accommodate the expected crowd.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State took particular aim at Columbus-area World Harvest Church and Mr. Parsley, who has a history of derogatory comments about homosexuality.
“For non-Christians, students who adhere to faith traditions that teach tolerance and respect for gays and lesbians, and students who are themselves gay or lesbian, the venue is, at best, unwelcoming and, at worst, traumatizing,” the letter says.
When asked what gay or atheist students who object to the venue should do, Mr. Wilkinson responded that Ohio Virtual Academy tries to accommodate “students/families based off their specific needs” when it comes to attending graduation ceremonies.
“We care about every student and will consider alternatives for graduates who can’t attend the ceremony,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
The Ohio Department of Education said that other districts have used churches for graduation ceremonies, as many districts don’t have adequate facilities for those events. John Charlton, an ODE spokesman, said that, while sensitive to laws regarding the separation of church and state, the department does not consider the use of a church facility for a graduation ceremony as inherently improper.
“Just because it’s a church facility, doesn't necessarily violate the law,” he said.