Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Connecticut have filed a lawsuit in federal court over a public school district’s decision to hold this year’s graduation ceremonies in a Christian megachurch.
The groups, which filed suit Wednesday on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three parents, are charging that the Enfield Public Schools’ decision to hold their graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral in Bloomfield “excessively entangle[s]” the district with religion and is – for a number of reasons – in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
“Public school students have a right to attend their graduation without feeling like they’re taking part in a religious service,” says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The use of a church for this important milestone is clearly inappropriate.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, which is defending the district, however, insists that the use of First Cathedral, also known as the First Baptist Church of Hartford, does not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause.
It says the main reason the Enfield School District chose to hold graduation at First Cathedral was financial. The church, ACLJ argues, is $8,000 to $40,000 cheaper than holding graduations at comparable facilities – a claim that AU rejects.
The Baptist megachurch also reportedly provides “the best amenities,” including ample seating and parking, advanced audio visual capabilities and “general comfort for graduates and their families.”
Furthermore, student support for the cathedral venue was found to be very strong. Student Board of Education representatives from both Enfield and Fermi High School stated that, after polling their fellow classmates, the vast majority wanted graduation to be held at the church. Also, students at both high schools signed a petition in support of the church venue.
“The law in this area is clear and well established and the United States Supreme Court has decided numerous cases involving public schools and the Establishment Clause,” says ACLJ Senior Counsel Vince McCarthy, representing the school district. “Once again, those seeking to marginalize religion in America have turned the clearly secular use of a religious building into needless litigation.”
According to the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The prohibition, through the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, applies to the official acts of local governmental entities, including public schools.
The case is Does v. Enfield Public Schools.