After being threatened with legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union, school officials in Neptune Township, N.J., have reached a middle ground in regards to hosting a graduation ceremony at a Methodist-owned site.
Claiming that the event violated the separation of church and state, the ACLU argued for the removal or covering of religious symbols in the Great Auditorium and other references to Christ outlined in the graduation ceremony, including a student-led invocation and two hymns sung.
The call came after a past graduate’s grandmother, who attended last year’s ceremony, was offended by the building’s religious symbols and Christian-based references.
In response, the school district agreed to change the graduation program and remove both hymns and the student-led invocation as well.
Neptune Public Schools Superintendent David Mooij told Fox News that the program was more of a tradition than a religious ceremony.
“[Nonetheless] we decided we would change the program and delete the things this individual found offensive,” Mooij stated.
As to the 20-foot cross above the entrance of the building, the owners of the auditorium, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, refused to take it down or cover it up, saying it was a gift from director Woody Allen, who had previously used the auditorium to shoot “Stardust Memories.”
They also would not cover up two illuminated indoor signs that read “Holiest to the Lord” and “So Be Ye Holy” – the oldest operating signs in America.
“The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a Christian ministry, and we can’t change who we are,” said Scott Hoffman, the chief operating officer, as reported by Fox. “We want this tradition to keep going as badly as anyone, but not at the expense of who we are.”
The ACLU then asked the school board to change the location of the graduation if the religious symbols would not be covered, threatening legal recourse if action was not taken.
But Mooij expressed that the move wasn’t “feasible” because they had already printed 3,000 tickets and there was no other venue that could seat the attendees. The Great Auditorium had a capacity of 6,500.
Coming to a final compromise, the ACLU, the Camp Association and the school district decided that in addition to the removal of the religious references during the ceremony, all of the religious signs inside the auditorium, including a cross, would be covered by school banners as well.
However, the 20-foot cross at the entrance and the antique lighted religious signs would not be covered or removed, and instead students and faculty would enter the building through the side doors to avoid entering under the cross.
“We are pleased to have successfully resolved this matter with the Neptune Board of Education. We are satisfied that the actions by the district will allow students of all faiths and backgrounds to enjoy their graduation ceremony without feeling like outsiders based on religious differences,” the ACLU said in a statement.
Mooij shared with Fox that both the students and the faculty learned through the problem.
“We’re very pleased. We’ve worked from the beginning to collaborate on a solution,” the superintendent expressed. “The town became stronger. It was a galvanizing moment.”
“There’s a lot of faith in this town. Faith that people expressed in prayer actually led to a true, amicable resolution.”
This year will be the first time in seven decades that graduating students will not walk under the cross during the commencement.
The Great Auditorium is a nationally recognized landmark and has hosted seven U.S. presidents including Ulysses S. Grant, as well as several state governors. Additionally, Mark Twain served on the board of directors for the auditorium, and Billy Graham previously spoke at the historic venue.
Frank Sinatra Jr. and the Beach Boys also performed at the site, and a number of other concerts and secular events were hosted there as well.