Surrounded by a flotilla of ACLU attorneys, Constance McMillen made her way into the US District Court House in Aberdeen, Mississippi yesterday. She and her lawyers were there to argue that Itawamba High School should be ordered by the court to un-cancel its prom, once scheduled for Friday, April 2. A federal judge, rather than prom king and queen, presided over this particular court.
Forgetting for the moment the improbable coincidence that my mother’s first name is “Constance” and her birthday happens to be April 2, it occurred to me this morning to wonder how many Itawamba High students would have excused themselves from the dance because it was to have taken place on Good Friday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
In the mediarama that ensued after Miss McMillen threatened her first suit (the one that brought her to court on Monday was her second), I do not recall a single comment about this unfortunate timing. And that’s as interesting as it is puzzling, since both supporters and detractors of Miss McMillen were quick to point out that Itawamba County is but one of the many notches of the Bible Belt. A reasonable person might assume that any number of devout parents might have frowned on their son or daughter kicking up his or her heels on this day of solemn contemplation. A reasonable person might even wonder why the powers that be did not glance at a calendar: separation of church and state does not preclude sensitivity to individuals’ religious observances. No college or university that I am aware of—private or public—schedules exams on, for example, Good Friday, Yom Kippur or Eid. I am really curious to know why a high school prom in this instance is so different from an exam. Because it’s voluntary?
I might buy that, if it weren’t for the spontaneous outpourings from Miss McMillen’s cheering squad that attending prom is a “right” of passage that high school students absolutely, positively, can’t-possibly-miss must attend. Elevating a school dance to the level of compulsory life experience makes it at least as important as all those tests that do not take place on certain days of sacred significance. Isn’t the prom therefore also worthy of taking place on a day that allows for more inclusion?
So I guess I also wonder why the Christians who presumably could not attend the Itawamba High School prom because of their religious beliefs didn’t get busy with their legal briefs. Why didn’t they round up publicity-seeking lawyers to plead their case that a Good Friday prom for them would be no prom at all? I am sure someone would have taken up the cause.
I’d like to think it is because, unlike Miss McMillen, these students understood that although they can want something desperately they can’t always have it, even if that something is being withheld from them by people who are thoughtless or bigoted or both. I’d like to think these students chose to choose their battles wisely. That’s called “growing up.” Something I hope in time Miss McMillen will do.
NOTE to readers: A good account of the March 23 hearing appears in today’s Washington Post. And of course CMM!‘s earlier trenchant commentary, Constance McMillen and Barak Obama: Spiritual Prom Dates, for background and context.