Connecticut Schools’ Plan To Hold Graduations In Church Is Ruled Unconstitutional

May 31, 2010

Ceremonies Must Be Held In Nonreligious Venue Following Challenge By ACLU And Americans United

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

ENFIELD, CT – A federal judge has declared that the Enfield Public Schools’ plan to hold high school graduation ceremonies at a Christian church is unconstitutional, and has ordered the school board to find an alternative venue. The graduation plans were challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“We are pleased that the court has found that holding a public high school graduation ceremony in an overtly religious setting is inappropriate when comparable secular facilities are available,” said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The Enfield Schools’ plan to hold the ceremonies in a church created an unnecessary divisive atmosphere for what should be a positive and inclusive event for all students.”

The groups brought the legal action on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three of their parents. The lawsuit challenged plans to hold commencement at First Cathedral, a Bloomfield church replete with religious signs and symbols, including at least three large crosses that could not be covered or removed for graduation.

The complaint pointed out that there are many secular facilities in the area that the Enfield Schools could use, including a number that compare favorably to the cathedral in terms of cost, size and distance from Enfield. At least three of those facilities have been holding open the June 23 and 24 dates of the graduations for the Enfield Schools just in case the venue needed to be changed.

Members of the Enfield Board of Education at first joined four other schools in agreeing to not use the church for graduations. But they changed their minds last month following heavy lobbying from a religious organization.

“Hopefully now all Enfield Schools students and their families will feel included and welcome at the ceremonies,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “No student should ever have to feel like a second-class citizen at his or her own graduation.”

“The court’s ruling will ensure that no student or parent has to choose between missing their own graduation and being subjected to a religious environment of a faith to which they do not subscribe,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser. “It is unconstitutional and wrong for a school district to subject students and families to religious messages as the price of attending graduation.”

The legal team handling the case includes Luchenitser, Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Steven Gey Fellow Devin M. Cain of Americans United; Legal Director Sandra J. Staub and Staff Attorney David J. McGuire of the ACLU of Connecticut; and Mach of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Judge Janet Hall’s ruling can be found at www.acluct.org/downloads/Enfieldgraduationdecision.pdf

A copy of the legal complaint can be read at www.aclu.org/religion-belief/does-v-enfield-public-schools-complaint

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available at www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of Connecticut is available at www.acluct.org

Additional information about Americans United for Separation of Church and State is available at www.au.org

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