While the nation discusses and debates the attacks on religious freedom, a high school junior in Florida has put her academic reputation on the line to stand up for her faith. Margeaux Graham was selected this year to participate in The American Legion Auxiliary's prestigious 9-day leadership event, the "Girls State" program. When Margeaux learned she would not be allowed to attend Sunday mass during the event, she decided to decline the honor.
WORCESTER, MA (The American catholic) - (This article originally appeared at The American Catholic. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.)
"The American Legion Auxiliary is the world's largest women's patriotic service organization. Through its nearly 10,500 units located in every state and some foreign countries, the Auxiliary embodies the spirit of America that has prevailed through war and peace. Along with The American Legion, it solidly stands behind America and her ideals."
While the nation discusses and debates the attacks on religious freedom, a high school junior in Florida has put her academic reputation on the line to stand up for her faith. Margeaux Graham was selected this year to participate in a prestigious 9-day leadership event in her state's capital. The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) of Florida has an annual "Girls State" program whereby the participants "learn how to participate in the functioning of their state's government in preparation for their future roles as responsible adult citizens." It is a "nonpartisan program that teaches young women responsible citizenship and love for God and Country. They are awarded 3 college credits and rare notoriety in the college application process.
Margeaux is a faithful Catholic. That is, she takes her obligation to attend Mass as just that - her obligation. When she inquired about nearby Catholic churches to plan where she would attend, she was told by the staff that the only opportunity any of the girls would have to participate in a Sunday service is to attend the "non-offensive", non-denominational service offered for all at the conference. The event takes place at Florida State University and the cathedral is nearby the campus. [see update] A member of the national American Legion even contacted the Auxiliary to arrange for a priest to celebrate Mass on campus, and this accommodation was denied.
So Margeaux took action herself. She wrote to the organizers declining the invitation, with firm resolve, unless she was allowed to attend Mass. This is her letter, reprinted with permission. Mind you, she is a high school junior.
TO: American Legion Auxiliary Unit #21
FROM: Margeaux Graham
RE: Girls State 2012
DATE: May 7, 2012
I am regretfully writing this letter to formally inform you that I will be unable to attend Florida Girls State in June. I am extremely honored that you found me worthy to represent American Legion Auxiliary unit #21 and am devastated that I cannot participate. I attended orientation on May 6, 2012 and was informed by [name private] that I would not be allowed to attend Mass on Sunday.
My faith is very important to me, as it has been to countless Americans. This country was founded on the principles of religious and personal freedom, the fundamental rights that either you or your loved ones fought to protect. It is disheartening that the Florida Girls State program is structured in such a way that it prohibits participation of young women who have a strong conviction for their religious practices.
The only opportunity to participate in a Sunday service is presented in a "non-offensive", non-denominational service. As a Catholic Christian I find it offensive that I am not allowed to attend Mass and am perplexed as to how this service could accommodate the beliefs of other religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and all Christian religions. I am disappointed to see the lack of respect for religious creed from the Florida Girls State program by limiting participants to only one religious paradigm.
Miss [name private] made it quite clear that I had to choose between my faith and Florida Girls State. I was looking forward to attending with great zeal, the knowledge, experience, and friends gained would have been invaluable. My faith has made me who I am, it has shaped me into the young woman that you chose as your delegate, for me to deny my faith would be hypocritical. Words cannot express my disappointment that the Florida Girls State program is designed to only accommodate delegates who fit into a pre-determined religious belief system or none at all.
The letter was forwarded to the State Director, who forwarded it to a state level officer, who also identifies as Catholic, and thus felt compelled to respond to Margeaux. Here is part of her response, emphasis mine.
"Only an elite group of young women are given the privilege of attending each year and it is a once in a life-time opportunity to do so. Along with that privilege comes some sacrifice. They must attend an orientation and for some that means missing a track meet or dance competition and they must remain with the program from beginning till end and sometimes that means missing other important programs throughout the summer and other camps whose dates over-lap ours. And yes, it means girls are unable to go to the church of their choice on Sunday or what ever their day of worship is." -ALA Florida Officer (Catholic)
Missing Mass is a Sacrifice?
The adult role model went on to say that she knows God understands and accepts her decision to work this program each year even if it means she must miss Mass. "It does not make me any less a Catholic. My faith is stronger than that!" Really? Catholics are supposed to yield to politics on sacred obligations? In order to show they have strong faith? After she accused Margeaux's mother of creating a "negative impact" on her daughter, the officer went on to scold, "Life is full of choices and she will be faced with many in her lifetime. One of life's lessons is she can't go through life blaming others for the decisions she makes."
It's remarkable to note that on the ALA website their preamble states: "For God and Country, we associate ourselves together for the following purposes: To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of American.[sic]" Yet, they are using coercive force to violate this young woman's fundamental constitutional and civil right to worship, guaranteed to her by the First Amendment.
One last thing.
The officer says that in her 19 years of service no one has ever questioned this "sacrifice." That's longer than Margeaux's been alive, and her stand is nothing short of heroic. Applaud her! Say a prayer of thanks, and then, if you know anyone at a Catholic university who could possibly arrange to grant Margeaux the three credits she ought to have received, please send them this article and let me know. She's earned it for demonstrating true leadership and courage, because although she has the right to participate in leadership development as a citizen and to worship as she chooses, if she has to make the choice between one or the other, she has demonstrated that she will not compromise her priorities. Nor will she trade her faith for temporal prestige. That's most fundamentally what leaders - and Catholics - do.
Thank you Margeaux. You inspire us all.
[Stay tuned though...she may just go to that conference yet.]
UPDATE: Just heard that the university is not University of Central Florida, but Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. The cathedral is literally right across the street.
Stacy Trasancos is the chief editor at Ignitum Today, and a contributor to Integrated Catholic Life. She has a PhD in chemistry and is currently working on a Master's in theology. She blogs at Accepting Abundance.
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