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RHS event in question

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By Lee Einer

Robertson High School’s administration told students that attendance at a religious ceremony was mandatory, a move that may place the school in conflict with both state and federal law.

The ceremony, a baccalaureate, was held May 19 at Immaculate Conception Church in Las Vegas. The Rev. George Salazar gave the greeting, the prayer of invocation and the benediction. The Robertson High School choir and band also performed at the event.

Senior attendance at the baccalaureate was listed as mandatory in three separate written notices sent to students by the Robertson High School administration. A senior Mass, also held at Immaculate Conception Church, was promoted in the administration’s notices as well, but attendance at the Mass was listed as non-mandatory.

Richard Lopez, Robertson High School’s principal, said that although the notices distributed at the school stated that attending the baccalaureate was mandatory, it was really optional and that students could talk to him and opt out of attending. When asked how students would know about the ability to opt out and why the event was promoted in print as mandatory, Lopez said he would call back. No return call has been received from Lopez.

Peter Simonson, director of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, called the situation “troubling.”

“The fact that the school made this mandatory represents a significant infringement on the students’ religious freedoms,” Simonson said.

Simonson said that even if the school had not told students that attendance was mandatory, the handling of the baccalaureate would still be a problem.

“Mandatory or not, the school government in this case was taking on the role of a church and the mere fact that it had so entangled itself with this ceremony means that it was endorsing a particular religious belief, so even if the school had not advertised the event as mandatory, they wildly overstepped their bounds,” he said.

Simonson said the ACLU would look into the matter further.

Beverly Friedman, spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department, said religious ceremonies are not mandatory for students to attend and pointed to New Mexico’s constitution and laws in support of that position; New Mexico law states, in part, that no public school student or teacher “shall ever be required to attend or participate in any religious service whatsoever.”

Friedman said the state would also be investigating.

Las Vegas City Schools Superintendent Pete Campos thanked the Optic for bringing the matter to his attention and that he would be issuing a memo to the new superintendent suggesting that senior week activities be revisited in the light of case law, northern New Mexico traditions and the input of students, parents and faculty.