The commencement ceremony at my community college is set to take place in a church. I have a meeting with a school administrator to talk about changing the venue because I want the ceremony to be in a secular space. Is it legal for the school to use a church for a commencement ceremony? Are there any laws in north Carolina about school events being held in religious buildings?
In Does v Enfield, the ACLU, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the Enfield, Connecticut Board of Education. In that case, the school district agreed to stop holding the ceremonies in church.
The lawsuit was brought based on the fact that the church had significant Christian iconography and banners reading "Jesus Christ is Lord" and "I am GOD." The school district agreed to stop holding ceremonies in the church after a federal judge declared plans to hold ceremonies in the church unconstitutional. The lawsuit was dropped once the school district agreed to abandon the church venue for school functions.
In Elmbrook School District v. Doe, the seventh circuit court of appeals ruled against the town's plans to hold graduation ceremonies in a church and the Supreme Court declined to hear the town's appeal.
In each of these cases, the school districts argued that merely using the facilities of a religious institution did not endorse the religion in violation of other Supreme Court precedents. The plaintiffs argued that exposure to the messages found within the church was enough to trigger a violation.
Elmbrook School District is in the 7th circuit and the Enfield, Connecticut Board of Education is in the 3rd district. North Carolina is in the 4th district.
Note that for the 7th district case, the appeals court initially found for the school district. The full circuit reconsidered and, in a 7-3 split, found that the venue could not avoid being coercive and violated the 1st amendment.
In each of the cases presented here there were significant religious symbols in the venue as well as religious pamphlets, publications and bibles. The challenges were not brought based on the venue but, rather, based on the unavoidable messaging found inside those venues. It would be a completely different challenge if a graduation ceremony were held on church property in an unadorned building such as an auditorium with no religious symbols or messages.
An example is Wayne Community College, in North Carolina, which has scheduled their 2017 graduation ceremony at Love Temple United Holy Church. When looking at photos of the church's auditorium one notices a lack of religious iconography and messaging. Without exposure to such iconography or other religious messaging it's possible that a public school's choice of such a venue would withstand legal challenge.