March 7, 2007

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Muslim Honor Student Unable to Attend Graduation

 
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a lawsuit today against the Newark Public Schools for violating a Muslim student's religious freedom by holding West Side High School's 2006 graduation ceremony in the sanctuary of a Baptist church.
 
"I worked hard throughout high school to reach the point of graduation, and the school -by holding graduation in the sanctuary of a church - denied me the chance to be there with my friends and family for what should have been a happy, once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Bilal Shareef.
 
Shareef, a 2006 graduating senior and honor student who is Muslim, was unable to attend his graduation because the school's decision to hold graduation in a church forced him to choose between missing graduation or violating his religious proscription against entering buildings with religious iconography, such as pictures of God or the cross.
 
Prior to 2004, West Side High School held its graduations in secular locations. However, in 2005, the school scheduled graduation in New Hope Baptist Church. At that time the ACLU of New Jersey received a complaint from a Muslim parent and contacted the attorney for Newark Public Schools. Upon receiving a letter from the school attorney providing assurances that graduation would not be held in a religious location again, the ACLU of New Jersey agreed not to sue. The school district attorney, in his letter, stated that "based [on] the legitimate concerns of our student and parent, I will advise District administration to refrain from scheduling events in church locations and make every effort to work with the church to remove or conceal religious symbols for the duration of the ceremony."
 
However, in 2006, despite this written promise, West Side High School again scheduled its graduation ceremony in New Hope Baptist Church. Moreover, then-Principal Fernard Williams informed students that if they attended a separate religious baccalaureate ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (a Catholic church), they would receive two additional tickets for family or friends to attend the graduation ceremony.
 
"Although he tried not to show it, I knew Bilal took it hard," said Ahmad Shareef, Bilal's father.  "I am an involved parent and would have been proud to see Bilal walk up to receive his diploma, but I am even more proud that he stood up for our beliefs. Insha'Allah [God-willing], this lawsuit will ensure that students from all religious backgrounds will have their rights and religious beliefs respected."
 
The lawsuit says that the school's actions of awarding benefits to students for attending the Catholic religious ceremony and holding the graduation ceremony in a Baptist church violated the New Jersey Constitution's prohibitions against: showing a preference for certain religious sects over others; compelling people to "attend any place of
worship contrary to his faith and judgment;" and segregating or discriminating against students "in the public schools, because of [their] religious principles."
 
"This case is a living example of why the New Jersey Constitution makes it clear that government should neither favor nor discriminate against religious practice," said ACLU of New Jersey  Legal Director Ed Barocas, who represents the Shareefs. "Schools should not sponsor activities that exclude some students from participation on the basis of religious belief."
 
The ACLU of New Jersey has a long track record of supporting the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and engage in religious practices free from government interference, including recently defending a second-grade student's right to sing a Christian religious song at an after-school talent show, ensuring that jurors who wear religious garb are not removed from jury pools, and supporting a student whose public school teacher told the class that they belonged in hell if they did not believe that Jesus died for their sins.
 
The case is Bilal Shareef and Ahmad Shareef v. Newark Public Schools, et al. It was filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County.
 
The complaint can be found online at:
 www.aclu-nj.org/legal/legaldocket/shareefvnewarkpublicschool.htm

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