Church-state challenge forces Huntersville charter school to find new graduation site

University Park Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road has hosted Lake Norman Charter School’s graduation ceremonies for seven years. The school is trying to find a new venue after a threatened church-state legal challenge.
University Park Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road has hosted Lake Norman Charter School’s graduation ceremonies for seven years. The school is trying to find a new venue after a threatened church-state legal challenge.

Lake Norman Charter School, one of the biggest and oldest charter schools in the Charlotte region, is scrambling to find a site for its 2019 graduation after an advocacy group challenged its longstanding arrangement with a church.

For the last seven years, the Huntersville charter school has hosted its commencement ceremony at University Park Baptist Church in north Charlotte. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., challenged that arrangement after someone complained about seeing banners sporting Bible verses at the 2018 ceremony.

“Public schools exist to serve all schoolchildren regardless of faith or belief and must be welcoming to all,” says a letter dated Aug. 23 and signed by the group’s legal director and staff attorney. “Using a church as a graduation venue disrespects the beliefs of students and their families. It also violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Lake Norman Superintendent Shannon Stein said Monday that two lawyers told her they thought her school could prevail if the group filed suit, but it could end up costing $500,000 to $750,000.

In other words, Stein said, “we could win and still lose.”

At the school’s November board meeting, Stein says she thought it would be best to find a new location and the board agreed. The school recently sent families a note asking for suggestions for an affordable, non-religious venue that seats about 2,500. The school generally has almost 200 graduates and pulls crowds of 2,300 to 2,400 once families, friends and faculty pile in, Stein said.

Stein said so far she doesn’t have a site in mind. She hopes to have a decision by mid-December so 2019 graduates will know whether the June 1 date must be changed and how many guests they’ll be allowed to invite. Those decisions need to be made soon so graduation notices can be printed, the school said in its note.

The graduation challenge is the latest twist in a state and nation that are wrestling with what public education looks like. Charter schools, which are growing in North Carolina and across the country, are public schools that report to independent boards rather than local school boards. In North Carolina they cannot include religious content, and if they rent space in a church all religious material must be covered during school time.

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However, North Carolina provides millions of dollars each year in vouchers that allow low- to moderate-income families to send children to private schools, most of which are religious. There are no restrictions on those schools; proponents say public money doesn’t account for the bulk of those schools’ funding and parents who qualify for Opportunity Scholarships can choose whether they want their kids in a private religious setting.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents Huntersville, said after learning of the challenge to Lake Norman Charter School he’s going to ask Americans United for Separation of Church and State to look into Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ practice of leasing school buildings to churches after school hours.

CMS says churches that hold weekend services at schools follow the same “community use of schools” policy as other organizations that rent school facilities, including youth sports teams and community groups.

Puckett said in emails to Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla and others that he considers the threat to take Lake Norman Charter School to court “stupidity” that needs to be challenged.

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, they're growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and private schools.

“It is unfortunate that there are those who are so narrow minded that they will hamstring public schools financially when the faith community and the public sector work together towards common non-religious concerns,” Puckett wrote.

Stein said it didn’t seem reasonable to ask the church, which has been welcoming and affordable, to remove banners. Even that might not have allayed concerns, she said, because the building includes a cross-topped steeple and a large metal sculpture of a cross near the road.

Stein said she’s dismayed that she learned about the anonymous graduation guest’s concern through an outside advocacy group, rather than a personal conversation. She said the graduation ceremonies contain no religious content.

“I think a dialogue would have led to resolution,” Stein said. “This seems to be a sign of our times that we jump to an extreme option.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms