The board of education in Enfield, Conn., voted Thursday against appealing a federal judge's ruling barring two high schools from holding graduations at a church.
In a 5-4 vote, board members decided not to file an appeal. They subsequently voted to hold the ceremonies at the schools later this month.
The decision shocked Vincent McCarthy, the attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice which was representing the Enfield school district in the case. He was looking forward to arguing the case more fully in the court of appeals and said they had a good chance.
"In this case, the court simply got it wrong," the ACLJ senior counsel said in a statement. "There need not be a constitutional crisis simply because a religious facility is used for a clearly secular purpose."
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall ruled that Enfield and Fermi High Schools could not use First Cathedral for their graduation ceremonies because it was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
She said the megachurch was "overwrought with religious symbols" and holding graduations there would convey the message that certain religious views are embraced by Enfield Schools and others are not.
A lawsuit had been filed against the school district by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three parents.
"Public school students have a right to attend their graduation without feeling like they're taking part in a religious service," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, had argued.
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."
Rather than appeal the case, board member Judith Apruzzese-Desroches said she wanted to move on and establish a graduation site.
"We need to get it done. We need to provide something for these students who are graduating," she said, according to the Hartford Courant.
Board chairman Gregory Stokes, however, felt the board made a mistake by not continuing with the appeal.
Many students and parents who attended the meeting Thursday were also dissatisfied with the vote.
Andrew Silva, this year's valedictorian at Enrico Fermi High School, told the local Courant that the issue has always been about the number of seats, not religion. Disappointed with the board's decision, Silva still hopes they can hold the ceremony at an off-campus site.