(Photo: AP Images / Journal Inquirer, Leslloyd F. Alleyne)
Two Enfield, Conn., schools have been prohibited by a federal judge from holding their 2010 graduations inside a church.
U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall ruled on Monday that holding the ceremonies at First Cathedral, a megachurch, is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
"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 American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which filed the suit against Enfield Public Schools together with the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church.
"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," he added.
Before making her decision, the federal judge visited the church in Bloomfield last week. She found the church to be "overwrought with religious symbols."
Those attending graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral, she said, would encounter, among other things, a large cross on the church's roof, a large central cross at the main entrance, a stained glass depiction of worshippers in the main entrance, and a large cross behind the stage "that undoubtedly constitutes the focal point of the entire sanctuary."
"Upon consideration of the evidence from the perspective of such a reasonable observer, the court concludes that plaintiffs have made a substantial showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that holding 2010 graduations at First Cathedral constitutes an impermissible endorsement of religion because it conveys the message that certain religious views are embraced by Enfield Schools, and others are not," Hall ruled.
"[B]y requiring a graduating senior – or a parent of one – to enter First Cathedral in order to be able to participate in his or her graduation – or to watch their child graduate – Enfield Public Schools has coerced plaintiffs to support religion."
Though the Enfield School Board expressed an intention to cover or remove religious images and objects, Hall said that would also be unconstitutional.
"By attempting to 'neutralize' the First Cathedral by covering up many (albeit not all) of its religious images, Enfield Public Schools unconstitutionally entangles itself with religion," she concluded.
The school board had initially voted in January to hold graduation ceremonies at the respective schools. But in April, board members determined that First Cathedral provided "the best location within the budget."
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three parents. They argued that holding the ceremonies at the church "excessively entangle[s]" the district with religion and is in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Enfield and Fermi High Schools used First Cathedral for their previous graduation ceremonies, as construction was being performed on the schools' athletic fields. Other schools in the Hartford-area have also held graduations at the megachurch.
Vincent McCarthy of the the American Center for Law and Justice told The Associated Press that the district will ask the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to hear an expedited appeal.
The graduation ceremonies are scheduled for June 23 and 24.