The ACLU is saying religious symbols on a building that has hosted the graduating class of Neptune High School in Ocean Grove, N.J., for the past six decades, in ceremonies that often have religious undertones, makes the ceremony unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state.
The ACLU’s complaint to the school district was filed on behalf of a woman who attended the ceremony last year but doesn’t live in the district.
The religious symbols include two signs inside the Great Auditorium – a wooden, dome structure that was built in 1894 and has hosted eight presidents – one of which says, “HOLINESS TO THE LORD,” and the other says, “SO BE YE HOLY.” A 20-foot high white cross also hangs from the front of the building.
According to the NBC New York website, the ACLU says it is not threatening legal action and it wants the children to graduate in the auditorium, but it wants the cross covered. Another news report, however, says the ACLU will not comment as to whether a lawsuit is pending.
“The ACLU is not asking the district to change the venue,” said ACLU spokeswoman Katie Wang, according to Asbury Park Press. “It is simply asking the district to cover the religious symbols on the property, including covering the cross that is outside.”
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which is rooted in Methodist heritage, owns all of the land in the city. The auditorium hosts church services in addition to speeches, concerts and other events. OGCMA Chief Administrative Officer Nancy Hoffman said they will not agree to cover the symbols.
“We can’t cover those,” Hoffman told the Asbury Park Press. “They are part of the integrity of our historic structure.”
The graduation ceremony is scheduled for June 20 and with both sides at an impasse, the ceremony may not happen in the historic auditorium.
More than 100 parents and alumnus of the high school showed up for a Neptune school district meeting Wednesday night to voice their opinion.
Former board member Michael D. Fornino read the First Amendment, prompting applause from the crowd. He went on to say, “It does not say a public cannot use a facility that is a religious institution.”
“You have generation after generation that has walked down those isles,” alumnus Tracey James told NBC. “And as a student you’re a rock star for a day.”
“This a time honored tradition!” said Lisa Daly on Facebook. “Generations of my family have walked down the aisle of the Great Auditorium. My children should have that same tradition allowed to them!”
Neptune Township School Superintendent David Mooij said they changed the graduation ceremony program to match what other school districts across the country have had to do, but he said, “The ACLU said it wasn’t sufficient.”
So far, there haven’t been any complaints about the cross or the other religious symbols from parents whose children are hoping to celebrate their graduation in the auditorium.