HUNTERSVILLE, NC (WBTV) - A big cross greets you as you pull into The Park Church in North Charlotte, and it was that, among other religious symbols, that bothered at least one guest at Lake Norman Charter’s graduation ceremony held at the church last year. That guest then complained to an organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“We got a complaint from a local person who attended the graduation, noticed that it was being held at the church and that there was religious iconography present during the ceremony,” explained Ian Smith, a staff attorney for Americans United.
Americans United says they followed up on the complaint and decided to send a demand letter to Lake Norman Charter, which, according to the school, was the first time administrators were made aware of the concerns with the venue choice.
“It was disappointing we didn’t get to engage with dialogue with the family or whoever may have felt, or had issues with us having the ceremony in the church. We kind of pride ourselves on having an open dialogue at Lake Norman Charter, and the fact that we didn’t get a chance to hear those concerns and maybe sit down and have some dialogue,” said Lake Norman Charter Principal, Craig Smith.
The school says it’s held its graduation ceremonies at The Park Church for the last seven years, and some parents tell us the ceremony has never felt religious, but Americans United says regardless of the words used during the ceremony, the religious symbols and décor in the church alone are not acceptable for a public school ceremony.
“So, when you tell a student, if you want to get your diploma and join in this recognition of your achievement, you have to come into this church where you’re going to be exposed to these religious messages, which you might not agree with. That’s where the constitution steps in and says no,” said Ian Smith.
Lake Norman Charter has decided not to fight the letter, and says they’re now on the hunt for a new graduation venue for the ceremony scheduled for June first.
“We’ll get through it, we’ll figure it out. It’s going to be a celebration no matter where it is, but it is disappointing to have to face these challenges at this time in the school year," said Craig Smith.
The school said what drew them to The Park Church in the first place wasn’t only the size of the venue, but the affordability, being a non-profit school, they say a budget-friendly options, will be one of their biggest obstacles in finding a new venue in time.