Choice Of Venue Constitutes Government Endorsement Of Religion
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ENFIELD, CT – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State today demanded that school officials in Enfield stop holding high school graduation ceremonies at a Christian church and instead hold them at any of a number of secular locations available in the area.
In a letter sent today to the attorney for the Enfield Public Schools, the ACLU and Americans United say that graduating students, their families and other guests are unconstitutionally and "coercively subjected to religious messages as the price of attending high school commencement," and that "students and family members of minority religions, as well as those who do not subscribe to any religion at all, are immersed in a religious environment of a faith not their own."
The ACLU and Americans United plan to sue the district if it refuses to change the location of its graduations.
"In our constitutional system, public schools should not be in the business of embracing particular faiths or religious viewpoints," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation at the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The graduation ceremony is a significant event in the lives of students and their families, and no one should feel like a second-class participant during this important celebration."
Despite significant opposition from both students and parents, the graduation ceremonies for both Enfield High School and Enrico Fermi High School have been held for several years at The First Cathedral in Bloomfield, CT, a 120,000 square foot facility that is steeped in Christian symbols and iconography. Approximately 75 percent of Enfield High School's 2008 graduating class and 90 percent of the school's 2009 graduating class voted against graduating at The First Cathedral, and a significant percentage of students at Enrico Fermi have also opposed the venue.
"America is incredibly diverse when it comes to religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United Executive Director. "Our public schools should respect that diversity when making decisions about where to hold important events such as graduation. Students and their families should never be made to feel unwelcome at a school event on account of religion."
The ceremonies have been held at The First Cathedral despite the existence of at least a dozen secular alternatives in the surrounding area, including some that are both less expensive and closer to Enfield.
"Students and their families should not have to choose between attending graduation and being subjected to proselytizing religious messages," said Alex Luchenitser, Senior Litigation Counsel for Americans United. "Yet that is exactly the choice that the Enfield Schools impose on students and their families."
The facade of The First Cathedral features five large Christian crosses, and another large cross towers over the cathedral's roof. There is a fountain in the shape of a cross surrounded by a frame in the shape of a tomb in the church's lobby, and upon entering the sanctuary where the graduations take place, students and parents pass underneath large banners on which biblical scriptures are written. During the graduation ceremony, students are seated underneath a giant cross in a window at the front of the sanctuary and, to the left of the cross, hangs a banner that reads, "Jesus Christ is Lord." There are also a number of large-screen televisions throughout the sanctuary that display the message, "This is God's House Where Jesus Christ Is Lord," while students and guests wait for the ceremony to begin.
"The shared American value of religious liberty is best served when the government stays out of religion," said David McGuire, staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut. "Regardless of intent, when Enfield Public Schools host graduation at The First Cathedral they devalue the faith of students and families in the religious minority."
Four other area public schools — East Hartford High School, South Windsor High School, Windsor High School and the Metropolitan Learning Center Magnet School — also have been using The First Cathedral for their graduations. The ACLU and Americans United recently sent Freedom of Information Act requests to those schools, as well as to the Enfield Schools, about their choice of a venue for graduation, and plan to follow up with those schools separately.
A copy of today's letter is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/letter-demanding-enfield-ct-schools-stop-using-church-graduation-venue
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion
Additional information about Americans United for Separation of Church and State is available online at: www.au.org
Additional information about the ACLU of Connecticut is available online at: www.acluct.org