Dot Lake, Alaska — May 13, 2016. Today, the Center for Religious Expression (CRE) sent a letter on behalf of Jeff and Connor Rebitski to officials of the Alaska Gateway School District, insisting the District not compel the Rebitskis to preface Connor’s private graduation ceremony with a degrading state-composed disclaimer.
Jeff Rebitski is the principal of Dot Lake School, a public K-12 with a total of 10 students in a small Alaskan village. Because Jeff’s son Connor is the only graduate this year, Jeff asked Connor where he wished to have his graduation ceremony. Because the Rebitskis and their friends and family all live in Tok, Alaska 50 miles away and would likely not be able to travel to Dot Lake, Connor requested to have a private graduation ceremony at Chapel of the North, a church in Tok that graciously agreed to host the ceremony.
But after a month of planning the event, the superintendent of the school District contacted Jeff and claimed that it is “illegal” to have the “official” graduation ceremony in a church. The superintendent insisted Connor would have to travel 50 miles to Dot Lake, have the “official” graduation attended only by Connor and his parents, travel 50 miles back to Tok, and then present a disclaimer to friends and family that the Tok ceremony was not the “official” graduation.
The Rebitskis contacted CRE for help. CRE’s letter explains the District’s proposal unduly burdens the Rebitskis’ First Amendment rights for no legitimate reason. The letter notes that there is nothing illegal about holding a private graduation ceremony in a church building in lieu of a school-sponsored ceremony, and that compelling Connor to disparage his own private ceremony by implying it is somehow inferior to the “official” ceremony is facially unconstitutional. Because the date of the ceremony is quickly approaching, the letter requests the District respond within one week.
“The school’s knee-jerk reaction that anything religious ‘must’ be illegal is baseless,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “The District’s ridiculous requirements, including the forced articulation of a government-mandated disclaimer, are unnecessary as they are unconstitutional.”
UPDATE: Alaska Gateway School District responded favorably to CRE’s letter and Connor was able to hold his graduation ceremony at Chapel of the North.