JOE PLASKO/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Area High School senior Dillon Epler addresses the school board regarding the upcoming Baccalaureate Service. At left is senior class adviser Roseann Weinrich. At right is senior Katie Wagner.
The baccalaureate service for the Tamaqua Area High School graduating Class of 2010 will be held on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, 264 West Broad St.
Attendance at the service, which is sponsored annually by the Tamaqua Area Ministerial Association, not the school district, is voluntary for the seniors.
However, a student who had issues concerning attendance at baccalaureate contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding the district's involvement with the service, which might be viewed in some legal interpretations as blurring the line between the separation of church and state.
Due to the threat of potential litigation, district officials were advised not to pass that information along to students, and parents were referred by the district to contact the church concerning the service.
Tamaqua Area seniors Dillon Epler and Katie Wagner addressed the district's board of education concerning baccalaureate and the miscommunication surrounding it during a special meeting Thursday afternoon.
The identity of the student who contacted the ACLU wasn't revealed by the board or administration.
Epler told the board the situation has created "confusion, division, distraction and anger" among the graduating seniors.
"It is ridiculous that our principal and assistant principal can't answer questions about the service," said Epler. "They are not endorsing or promoting the service; that is something totally different."
Superintendent Carol Makuta praised the students for coming forward to address the board.
"I applaud what you are doing, because you are doing it in an organized, controlled manner," she said.
The school board held a closed executive session Tuesday evening due to the potential for a lawsuit, and after negotiating with an ACLU lawyer, developed a five-point clarification regarding baccalaureate that was approved for presentation to the district's students and employees for today.
Board President Larry A. Wittig said the school directors are sympathetic with students' need to know details about the service if they wish to participate in it, but stressed that the district has to err on the side of caution when faced with litigation.
"We put fires out," said Wittig. "You are preaching to the choir here, but we have a fiduciary responsibility not to get in a lawsuit, unless it is worthy.
"Personally, I question the ACLU's authority to do anything, because this is not our event," added Wittig.
It was stressed that there was never an injunction to prevent baccalaureate. "We tried to prevent that," said Wittig.
Wittig explained there are several precedents in case law that prevents public schools from promoting baccalaureate, but there is a related case currently in Connecticut that bears watching by the district.
Makuta said that because administrators, board members and teachers attend the service, some could view it as support for baccalaureate and as a way to pressure students into attending.
"We did announce baccalaureate as a courtesy, and I announced it at a public meeting, but no one felt we were influencing them, even if the principal and class adviser are influential people," she remarked.
As a result, administrators can't attend in their official school capacities, although they may attend as a member of the public.
Roseann Weinrich, the senior class adviser, said she has never attended the service as a school official but because she was volunteering her time.
Still, the district needed to tweak its approach, mentioned Wittig.
"We did some things wrong," said Wittig. "We had some language that was like they were required to go, and you can't do that.
"This board took an aggressive stance to say, enough is enough. We did not kowtow to everything their lawyer wanted."
Weinrich said the whole matter was frustrating, especially since she has to deal with students regarding commencement.
"They'd ask me in class and I can't tell them, and I'm in tears," said Weinrich. "I felt suffocated and that my right to speak is being violated. This needs to be communicated."
"What is stopping the students from announcing this?" asked Wittig. "If you initiate it on your own, it has no bearing on the school district," added director Mark Rother.
Makuta said there are no plans to discontinue the service now or in the future.
"Rest assured, baccalaureate will continue in the community because of the ministerium," she said. "They are the organizers. We are the announcer."
Wittig felt the controversy won't hurt the service.
"This will probably be the most successful and well-attended baccalaureate in the last couple years," he predicted.
Epler hopes his classmates will learn another lesson.
"We graduate in seven days," he said. "We need to know how to behave, address our elders and handle ourselves."
St. Jerome's has posted information on the service on its church website at www.parishesonline.com/stjerometamaqua.