LGBTQ+ students, parents frustrated about Prairie State College’s graduation venue

Prairie State College’s decision to hold its commencement ceremony at Victory Apostolic Church in Matteson is receiving pushback from parents and students in the community who oppose the religious facility because of its statements in opposition to same-sex marriage.

On its website, the church writes that it does not recognize marriage that is not between a man and a woman, believes “the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin,” and does not “condone the homosexual lifestyle.”

When she found out in December that her school had chosen to hold graduation at a venue that opposes non-heterosexual relationships, graduating student Rebecca Fassbender filed a complaint with the school’s Department of Equity and Inclusion.

“I received what I see as a generic response and quite dismissive,” said Fassbender, of Park Forest, who identifies as lesbian and is president of Prairie State College’s Pride Club. “It included some things about their budget and that this location needed to be within district and within their budget.”

But Fassbender questions if this is the only place in the area that would fit the school’s criteria. Students of the college have to live within the boundaries of Community College District 515, which spans from Homewood to Beecher and Richton Park to the Indiana state line, according to the college’s website.

“Are there not any other options that are welcoming to everyone?” Fassbender, 42, said Friday. “And if leadership can’t find an appropriate venue then they need to be creative in coming up with new ideas and new solutions.”

Victory Apostolic Church charges the college a discounted rate, according to the Rev. Andrew Singleton Jr., senior pastor. He did not give the specific dollar amount of the church’s fee.

During her years as a student, Fassbender said she has felt supported by staff and faculty as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. She even has felt supported by staff as she has spoken up about her concerns of the graduation venue.

Two days before the schoolwide graduation on May 18 at the church, the school will host “Lavender Graduation,” intended as a “celebration of Culture, Community and Inclusion.” The invite sheet, adorned with rainbow colors commonly associated with the LGBTQ+ community, notes the event will take place on the college’s campus.

This is the first year this event recognizing the school’s LGBTQ+ community is taking place. Fassbender said stoles will be passed out for members and allies of the community to wear during graduation.

But when asked what he thought about the potential LGBTQ+ stoles being worn at Victory Apostolic Church, Singleton said he would have to talk to the school.

“As long as they’re not demonstrating any flags and all of this kind of stuff,” said Singleton. “They respected the church last year.”

He said he did not want there to be LGBTQ+ flags or symbols while the graduation takes place.

“We are not in agreement with that,” Singleton said.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, acknowledged it might be a good idea to host a graduation at a building where everyone feels accepted. But he doesn’t think the school is breaking any laws.

“A court generally treats, say, college graduates different than high school or elementary school graduates,” Yohnka said. “A lot of this all comes down to ‘What does staging look like?’ ‘Are you covering all of the religious symbols?’”

But issues may arise for the church if it prevents certain flags or emblems from being brought in by students while allowing others in the building, he said.

“I think it’s difficult for the church to say there cannot be flags representing gay Pride, for example,” Yohnka said.

Prairie State College did not respond to requests for comment.

Records show graduation has taken place at this church before, including in 2022 and 2023.

Homewood-Flossmoor’s chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, commonly known as PFLAG, expressed disappointment the school chose yet again to have its graduation ceremony at Victory Apostolic Church.

Groups have cited another reason the church is a problematic venue. Video footage from the 2023 graduation shows graduates having to walk up several stairs to get their diplomas on the stage. But there is no ramp for students who cannot use stairs, forcing them to receive their diploma on the ground in front of the stage.

While they acknowledged in a statement that they could not change the venue this late in the game, PFLAG and Fassbender both said they hope the school will pick a new venue in upcoming years: one that is more accepting to gay, lesbian and students with disabilities.