Girls State conflicts with Catholic Mass

The last few months have seen a few stories about children managing conflicts with their religious beliefs. There was the story about the Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston that won its regional championship to advance to the boys basketball state semifinals but couldn't play because the game was scheduled during their Sabbath. There was the story about a school run by the Society of Saint Pius X that forfeited a baseball game rather than compete against a girl, in violation of their beliefs about treating women with respect. And now we have another story. One of the challenges in covering these issues is that usually we're dealing with minority religious groups whose views may seem silly to outsiders. Reporters must navigate that issue by respectfully covering both the children who are standing up for their religious values in the face of popular or formal opposition but also respectfully covering the views of those who think the children are wrong.

This story in a local Florida paper called the Daily Commercial was an interesting read. Reporter Theresa Campbell told the story of an Umatilla teenager who said she was forced to choose between her Catholic faith and being a delegate to Florida Girls State, a leadership program for teenaged girls:

"I was shocked. This is basically discrimination," said Margeaux (Mar-go) Graham, 16, a junior at Umatilla High School, who was told that she would not be allowed to attend Sunday Mass while Girls State is hosted June 15-23 at Florida State University in Tallahassee, even though a Catholic cathedral is across the street from FSU.

Graham's mother, Mary, offered to make the trip to escort her daughter to church.

"The girls are not allowed to leave our program for any reason," said Robin Briere, department secretary-treasurer of the American Legion Auxiliary, who noted it would be an insurance liability to allow any of the 300 delegates to leave the premises.

Briere said a non-denominational Sunday service is provided for the delegates.

Though my family is not Catholic, my siblings and I have faced this issue numerous times. We are Lutherans who don't do non-denominational worship and we believe that Sunday Divine Service is the most important part of our week and takes precedence over other activities. I have had numerous employers who do not understand or respect this. I always try to make it clear before I take a job that this is my religious practice. When my brother was at the Air Force Academy, it was difficult for him to explain to his supervisors that the evangelical Protestant service offered on campus would not satisfy his religious needs, for instance. In a way, I'm surprised we don't see more stories about this, if my own family's experience is any indication.

The story gave the perspective of the student according to the student and her religious community:

As a faithful Catholic, Graham said it would be a mortal sin for her not to attend Mass, as it's her religious and moral obligation to attend Mass every single Sunday.

"Missing Mass is not an option," added Jackie Smart, director of religious education at St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church in Eustis, where Graham is a parishioner.

"If you're Catholic, you're obliged to gather with your fellow Catholics on Sundays to celebrate Mass and it's not something that we can choose not to participate in, if you're an active Catholic," Smart said. "If you really believe what our faith teaches, there would be no way to keep you from Mass and that's the way Margeaux feels..."

When the young woman was told she couldn't go to Mass, a friend of the family who is commander of the American Legion Post in her hometown proposed allowing a priest to come to Girls State to celebrate Mass for the Catholic delegates. That idea was rejected.

The perspective of the program's leaders is also included. We're told Briere says religion has never been an issue for the program:

"We are a non-denominational program and intentionally keep religion out of our program out of respect for the 300 girls that come from many different faiths," she said. "We set aside time on Sunday morning, from our very busy schedule, to allow each girl to honor her faith silently and the girls collectively put a program together to honor all faiths."

The Sunday service is written and executed by the delegates, she said, adding it's something that they enjoy doing.

"The majority of our schools in Girls State are Catholic schools that support our program," Briere said. "And we've never at one time had a Catholic school demand that we have a priest come into our program to celebrate Mass during Girls State."

"I'm just amazed at the uproar over this," added Briere, who also is Catholic by faith. "It's not like she's forced to go to this program and we're denying her religious rights. ... What has surprised me the most, through all of this, was having the Umatilla American Legion commander call and demand that we had to do it."

Briere said she does not feel less of a Catholic when she misses Mass while being involved in leading Girls State.

At this point, it may have been nice to have an outside expert weigh in to explain the difference in approach between some Catholics and others or why an interfaith program or silent prayer time might be neither sufficient nor allowable for some religious adherents.

The story goes on to explain that Miss Graham "regretfully" declined to be her local auxiliary's delegate. A portion of her letter announcing that was quoted including what she thinks of the program's treatment of her religious views. Briere is also given a chance to respond. Here's how the article ends:

"I respect her religious beliefs, and certainly I share them as we're the same faith," Briere said. "The Catholic religion that I know is not that narrow thinking, but I do respect how she feels. I'm not disrespecting her in any way. I just feel bad that she is being put in the position to choose between the two. Unfortunately, because of this, she has lost her opportunity to go to Girl State and that cannot be changed now. She's out of the program, and it was her choice."

The teen said she made the decision on her own and that her parents would have been "supportive" of whatever she had chosen to do.

"My daughter is an amazing young teen," Mary Graham said. "She is standing up for her faith."

I love all the quotes and the length of them, allowing us to get a real sense of the actual views of the major players in this story. That this comes from a smaller local paper is also worth noting. It's a great idea for a story, obviously, and includes more information than we expect to see in local reports.

Photo of young woman praying via Shutterstock.

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