Faithandthelaw's Blog

The law as it relates to Christians and their free exercise of religion

Connecticut Ground Zero For Legal Battle About Holding High School Graduations In A Church

Posted by faithandthelaw on May 3, 2010

ENFIELD —  A First Amendment battle might be looming after the board of education’s decision Tuesday night to hold high school graduations at First Cathedral in Bloomfield.

The board’s earlier discussions about using the church for a graduation site again this year drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and a second group, both of which threatened to sue the town for violating the principle of separation of church and state, which is rooted in the First Amendment. On Wednesday, however, the ACLU said it is unsure what its next step will be.

Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice says it will defend the school district for free if the ACLU sues the town. The center, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit group whose website says it is “specifically dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, God-given rights.”

The Family Institute of Connecticut has also urged the town to contest the ACLU’s demands.

The six school board members who voted for First Cathedral — five Republicans and a Democrat — insist that financial necessity and time constraints drove their votes rather than ideological views on the separation of church and state. The three board members voting against First Cathedral are Democrats.

Chairman Gregory Stokes said the board set aside $32,000 for both graduations — for Enfield and Enrico Fermi high schools — in its budget this year, assuming they would continue to be held at the church.

“I hope the ACLU would understand that we’re two months out [from graduation] and if they interfere, it would make it very difficult for us to hold a graduation ceremony,” Stokes said Wednesday.

The town’s high school seniors Wednesday had “a general feeling of triumph,” said Meghan Ruff, tudent representative on the school board from Fermi High School.

Ruff and a classmate circulated a petition and found that the majority of students at their school preferred off-campus graduation sites. The petition went out after the board voted in January to hold the ceremonies at each high school. That vote was rescinded a month later.

ACLU staff attorney David McGuire said Wednesday, “We’re still in the process of conferring with our clients and deciding what our next step will be.” The ACLU said local families have made complaints about the use of the cathedral in the past.

“We’re disappointed that after reaching a decision two months ago, the Enfield Board of Education has changed their mind and moved this graduation back to the church,” McGuire said. “This decision is disrespectful of religious minorities and forces families and students to choose between attending graduation and being subjected to religious messages.”

Board members said three factors led them to change their minds and vote for First Cathedral: the higher cost of other potential graduation sites; the offer of free legal help by the American Center for Law and Justice; and comments by many parents and students that they preferred off-campus sites such as First Cathedral because there are more seats for family members to attend.

Board members Judith Apruzzese-Desroches, Vincent Grady and Joyce Hall voted against First Cathedral. Apruzzese-Desroches said she was uncomfortable about unknown risks and the costs of a potential lawsuit.

Vincent McCarthy, senior Northeast counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said Wednesday, “There is no endorsement of religion that can be implied or expressed by the use of this facility.” “This issue is solely legal,” McCarthy said. “The issue is whether the use of the facility constitutes an endorsement of religion.”

Peter Wolfgang, director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said members living in Enfield contacted his office when the ACLU made its demand last year.

“They were very concerned that there was an attack on religious liberties,” Wolfgang said Wednesday. He spoke at a March school board meeting and urged members to accept the American Center’s offer to defend the district.

“The First Amendment is worth fighting for,” he told the board. “Enfield is ground zero in battles that really affect the whole nation.”


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