For more than a decade, the McKinney Independent School District held the commencement ceremony for its three high schools at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano. Reportedly, some parents and community members objected to Christian religious symbols serving as the backdrop for a public school graduation.
Last week, McKinney ISD officials suddenly sent home a letter to parents of senior year students advising they chose to hold graduation at the nearby Allen Event Center for “a variety of reasons including proximity, availability, attendance capacity, and convenience.” School district officials contend the majority of neighboring school districts have held their graduations in secular venues for years.
On Tuesday, Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham blamed the move on the church’s refusal to cover up the crucifix, calling the school district’s decision “cowardly” and an attack on “religious freedom.”
In another tweet, Graham suggested school administrators “yielded to the pressure of atheists groups and their supporters.”
This church versus state tug-of-war started in August when some McKinney parents and community members blasted Superintendent Rick McDaniel for leading prayer at the district’s back-to-school employee convocation held each year at the church. At the time, McDaniel acknowledged not everyone in the audience may feel comfortable with his praying. He said: “It’s alright, I understand.” He did not mention any religious figures and hoped for a “moment of silence” for Barcelona, Spain, terror victims who perished only days earlier, and for all others who “lost their lives recently to terrorist activity around the world.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist rights group, quickly stepped in. In a letter dated August 29, FFRF lawyer Sam Grover called upon McKinney ISD trustees to discipline McDaniel, describing the convocation prayer as “not appropriate from a government entity.” He said multiple concerned McKinney residents and one school district staffer contacted FFRF.
NBC DFW reported that McKinney ISD said not everything in FFRF’s complaint was factually accurate. The district responded: “McKinney ISD’s existing facilities cannot accommodate large events like convocations and graduations and, therefore, the district must rent outside facilities.” Once completed, McKinney ISD officials intend to host future graduations, convocations, and other school events at their $70 million taxpayer funded high school football stadium and event center currently under construction.
The school board did not reprimand McDaniel, even though the superintendent’s critics remained vocal about the convocation prayer. They signed up to speak during public comments at two November board meetings on the subject of separation of church and state.
Chapter 25 of the Texas Education Code states that school districts and public charter schools provide students with one minute of silence to reflect, pray, or meditate following the daily recitation of the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags. Students may also pray outside of instructional time, if voluntary, non-disruptive, and student led, says Religion in the Public Schools, a 27-page legal services document by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). It outlines federal and state laws that “form the foundation that guides public school districts in navigating the complex area of religion in schools.” It notes that a public school district and its employees may not sponsor prayer at graduation or show preference for one religion or non-religion.
In November, school officials said the complaints emanated from a small group of parents who also griped about “teachers displaying personal items that may be religious in nature,” mainly referring to “crosses” in classrooms, according to WFAA. The district said it was “committed to maintaining a culture that respects the diverse backgrounds and beliefs of all our students and staff.”
On Wednesday, McKinney ISD noted: “Many of our Christian parents have expressed that while they were comfortable with graduations at Prestonwood Baptist Church, they can understand how a family of another faith might feel differently.”
The school district called the goal of this move “to keep 100 percent of the focus of graduation on honoring students and their accomplishments.”