May 23, 2019

Baccalaureate service becomes a lesson in morality of law

June is almost here. Apple blossoms have come and gone. All the forces that combine to push the juices of spring into full tide are at their posts, all the warm winds, all the long blue evenings, all the rushings of growth and the nestings and the bloomings and the flourishings. The most magic of months is within reach.

Graduation is within reach.

In 12 days, in the returned magic of June, the 18-year-old will graduate from high school. A New Life is about to begin for him. He can’t wait.

In his heart the 18-year-old already is moving beyond high school’s structured expectations. He lusts after the adventures that call to him from the New Life. Spring’s warm long evenings and her promises, all her unyielding and beckoning promises, have him so fueled for the charge into the great unknown that a person, any stranger even, walking by him can make out the sound of the 18-year-old’s internal engines revving in anticipation of graduation’s starting gun.

You’d think under these circumstances he might consider official graduation itself a mere formality. Not so. The cluster of observances that will make up the public ritual of his passage from high school into the adult community appear to be of some importance to the 18-year-old.

The senior prom. The senior banquet. The senior salute. The graduation march. The all-night celebration planned for the Class of ’91 after the ceremony. A complex recognition of a coming to adulthood is woven in their hours. The 18-year-old is taking it to heart.

I did so once myself. I’m not so old I can’t remember the high-octane excitement on which my own classmates and I motored through the graduation of the class of ’62. I recognize this energy pumping through the 18-year-old. In 1962 high-school graduation was a marker in my life. Now it is a replicated marker in my son’s. Decades have changed hardly at all the metamorphosis from American school kid into adult.

Hardly at all. Hardly a drop’s difference in an eon. My son’s graduation will be almost exactly like my own nearly 30 years ago.

The unsubstantial rented robes will be the same. The metal folding chairs will be the same. The stiffened flowers on the podium will be the same. The graduation speaker, without doubt, will sound the same. Cameras were less high tech at my graduation than they are these days, but certainly there were as many then as there are at graduation now. In my town we even had a planned celebration after graduation to enable us to stay out until dawn in boiling camaraderie but relative safety, just as my son and his classmates will have on their first night as high-school graduates.

One part of my son’s graduation exercises this year, however, will differ from the pattern of my own graduation. It is an important difference, too, a sort of civics lesson coming along after classes are over, after the fact here. The 18-year-old’s graduating class will have no baccalaureate.

In my day we met in the school auditorium all in our robes the day before graduation and heard earnest prayers from several religious credos read out in our behalf and listened to a brief homily exhorting us to do good in our expanding lives. We shared thus a baccalaureate tradition with generations of graduates before us. My son’s class also will join together once before their actual graduation ceremony, but they will call their gathering a senior salute, not a baccalaureate. Whatever ceremony constitutes the senior salute, it will include no prayers and no sermons. The senior salute will not be a baccalaureate service with a religious bent.

The elimination of religious references from the 18-year-old’s high-school graduation exercises follows in the wake of recent court decisions in Rhode Island and California. In a couple of different circumstances these states have declared prayer in public school ceremonies a violation of the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Our local newspaper says schools in these parts will adhere to these decisions but that some people are bothered by rulings that keep religious observance out ouf public education.

Somehow it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s all right to graduate without public prayers. It’s the right thing to do.

Most Americans don’t mind the kind of prayers that are typical of graduation exercises. Most probably like them. Many schools for some time have made an effort to include representatives of different faiths, so that a rabbi and a priest and a minister often are invited to jointly offer blessings at public school ceremonies. Most of these ceremonial prayers are sensitive and thoughtfully generic. The majority of witnesses to such prayers are not offended. The majority like them.

But when it comes to mixing religion and the work of government, we Americans don’t follow majority rule.

We follow the Constitution. It’s one of the great gifts, one of the wondrous visionary gifts, the drafters of the Constitution gave us. They understood the tyranny of the majority and they knew how it can turn even a force for good into a means of oppression. They wrote into our legal foundation that we will keep our religions, all our religions, our well-intentioned religions, our majority religions, our belowed religions, in our lives and in our hearts but not in our affairs of state.

The very absence of prayer at my son’s high-school graduation exercises will testify to the depth of American religious understanding. It will affirm our awareness that what we do to the least of our brethren defines us, majority and all.

It’s a funny thing, but doing without a baccalaureate service and without an invocation or a benediction in fact can teach graduates just how much morality informs American law. It can teach them the fundamental lesson of our Constitution, that we should love one another. It’s an unexpected extra graduation present for the Class of ’91.

Leigh McCarthy is a free-lance columnist who lives in Bangor.

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