A Massachusetts high school's decades-old tradition of holding a baccalaureate ceremony in a church will cease thanks to an outspoken student and a complaint from Americans United.
Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham has traditionally held its pre-graduation ceremony, a baccalaureate, in one of four rotating churches --St. Denis Church, St. Edward the Confessor Church, the First Congregational Church of Westminster and People's Church of Ashburnham. Oakmont Principal David Uminski said this has been the case for his entire time at the school.
"I've been with Oakmont for 20 years," Uminski told the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise. "And for as long as I can remember, this has been part of the Senior Week celebration."
Uminski also said he never considered the ceremony to be religious--despite its being held in a church and the fact that it was advertised as a religious event.
"It was held in a religious spot, but from our perspective, it wasn't really a religious ceremony," Uminski said. "Oftentimes, the speech would focus on growing up, graduation, becoming adults. Frankly, I don't ever remember a strictly religious message."
But one student felt differently. In October, senior Douglas Ciampi Jr. raised First Amendment concerns about holding an official school ceremony in a church and offered an alternative--"an evening of reflection."
"(Baccalaureate) wasn't something I'd be interested in attending or something most of my friends would be interested in attending," Ciampi said. "I thought if the senior class was putting on this event, it should be as welcoming as possible. That's what I was hoping the evening of reflection would be--something that appeals to more students."
Ciampi also reached out to Americans United for help. Last fall, AU attorneys sent a letter to Oakmont, noting that the ceremony is advertised as a "non-denominational religious service." AU advised the school to discontinue holding its baccalaureate in a church.
"[T]he First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from organizing, participating in and encouraging student attendance at religious ceremonies," the letter said. "Accordingly, please ensure that the school district does not sponsor, promote, or assist in organizing any...