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Break the faith or stay home

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Cuba High School’s likely valedictorian, an exemplary student with nearly perfect attendance, may not be able to walk with her class in May, and her father is claiming religious discrimination.

Liberty Thompson, who turns 18 on Friday, has a 4.0 GPA, is the school’s cross-country team captain and will have earned the equivalent of a college associate’s degree by the end of the school year, her father said.

But she is also a Seventh-day Adventist who recognizes Saturday as the Sabbath, the same day that graduation ceremonies have been scheduled.

Liberty and her family want the ceremony changed to a Friday, and it appears most of her classmates support that move.

But district officials say their hands are tied by state law, much like Liberty’s are tied by her religion.

The Cuba Independent School District has already sent its 2013-14 calendar to the New Mexico Public Education Department, with the graduation day set for Saturday, May 24. Although the district at times has held graduation on Fridays, this year’s calendar committee recommended May 24.

After requests by Liberty’s family, Cuba did ask the state agency whether it could move the 2014 graduation date, Cuba School Board president Christine Montoya said Wednesday night. But PED told the district it could not, she said.

Aimee Barabe, director of strategic outreach for the PED, said in an email late Wednesday that “decisions regarding the calendar are left at the local level.”

Liberty tried to address the Cuba School Board on Wednesday night in an appeal for members to move graduation to a Friday, but it refused to let her do so, saying the item was not on the agenda – an announcement that brought the senior to tears.

In an interview Wednesday night, Liberty said she loves school and walking with her class on graduation day would be “my reward for all the hard work I’ve done in high school.”

By all accounts, Liberty has been an exemplary student. Her attendance is close to perfect, and, according to her father, she has earned the equivalent of an associate of arts degree while in high school.

Her father, Dwight Thompson, said Liberty has never attended a meet or game on the Sabbath, even though she’s been on Cuba’s cross-country team for five years, including three as captain. Her 13-year-old sister, Indiana, is also on the team. On Saturdays, the girls can always be found at Rio Rancho Seventh-day Adventist Church, he said.

Saturdays, Liberty said, are “my little private time with God.”

Liberty was one of only 15 students statewide selected for UNM’s Health Careers Academy, two years in a row, and a member of the National Honor Society all four years, according to her father.

Superintendent Kirk Hartom, who assumed the post in July, said it is his understanding that a district calendar committee met several times to discuss and decide such matters as graduation day, and that Liberty’s parents did not participate in the process.

He said Cuba has held graduation on Fridays in the past, but many families complained because parents and grandparents had other obligations during the week.

Hartom sympathizes with Liberty and her family. “We’re – I am – very sad there’s that discrepancy and she may not be able to walk,” he said. “… It has nothing to do with religious discrimination.”

A petition has circulated through the halls of Cuba High in support of moving the commencement ceremony. “The undersigned students and parents support having graduation on Friday and hereby petition the School Board to move Graduation to Friday so that all Seniors can attend the graduation.”

Thompson said more than 60 percent of the 43 students in Liberty’s class have signed the petition.

He said in an email to the Journal that the district was violating its own non-discrimination statement.

District policy states that “Cuba Independent School District does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, marital or veteran status or disability in any educational programs, activities or employment.”

Her father said Liberty has been devastated by the decision.

“Being deprived because of religious discrimination” has caused Liberty “much anguish and suffering, but she tries to stay positive, supports her teams, and encourages other students,” he wrote. “If she’s deprived from walking, because of her faith, she’s at least knows that she lives by what she believes in.”