Eastern Carver County Schools will no longer host graduations at a nearby megachurch after lawyers advising the district said it faced "considerable risk of litigation" if it kept holding commencement ceremonies there.
The change comes after a student petition caught the attention of a pair of national advocacy organizations — Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lawyers advising the school district, which enrolls about 9,300 students, noted letters from those groups in their recommendation to school leaders.
The church removed religious iconography from its auditorium for the ceremonies, but in a note to district leaders, attorneys Greg Madsen and Shannon Smith said the school system faced heightened odds of lawsuits because of the discomfort expressed by some community members and the attention the rental agreement has garnered over the last year.
"To limit the risk of potential litigation and liability, it is our opinion that [Eastern Carver County Schools] should seek to secure an alternative, secular location for its graduation ceremonies," they wrote.
Becky Mielke, senior director of communications for Grace Church, declined to comment on the district's venue change.
In a June 14 letter to Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams, the Freedom from Religion Foundation urged the district to find a new venue for graduation.
"We write to request that the District cease holding its graduation ceremonies at Grace Church and instead select a secular facility in order to respect the diversity and constitutional rights of its students and their families," Samantha Lawrence, a foundation legal fellow, wrote.
Since then, district staff have instead inked a deal to hold graduations for Chanhassen and Chaska high schools at Target Center starting in 2024. Eastern Carver County Schools will pay $55,200 to rent the space, according to district documents, and $7,000 to ferry students and their families from the west metro suburbs to downtown Minneapolis.
That is more than double the $28,000 cost for the district to rent the Grace Church facilities this year. District spokesperson Celine Haga has previously said the bill included the cost of the auditorium, traffic control and security, among other things.
In a note to families, Chaska High Principal James Bach and Chanhassen High Principal Doug Bullinger said a committee composed of representatives from the schools settled on Target Center after surveying students, families and staff. All three groups prioritized "unlimited attendance" as one of their top priorities in any venue change.
Parents and school staff also strongly preferred an indoor venue, while students also said they wanted to make sure the district found facilities that would allow livestreams of the ceremonies.
"We know that change can be challenging," Bach and Bullinger wrote. "To our seniors and your families, trust that we are committed to creating a fitting capstone to your high school experience."
It's not unusual for school districts to hold their graduation ceremonies off-site, but it's rare they contract with churches.
Shakopee schools have also held graduation ceremonies at Grace Church. District officials there did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eastern Carver County Schools moved Chaska High's graduation ceremony to Grace Church in 2004 due to the venue's ability to seat 7,000 — nearly three times the football stadium's capacity — and several amenities, including a large parking lot and air conditioning. That was after years in which the event was held in inclement weather and some families complained that there wasn't enough space for their students' relatives to attend.
The Eastern Carver County district has held Chanhassen High's commencement at Grace Church since that school opened in 2009.
Madsen and Smith, the attorneys who wrote the memo to the district, said the availability of other viable venues, including the Minneapolis Convention Center, Target Center and the University of Minnesota, left the district open to complaints.