Conn. Schools Threatened with Lawsuit Over Graduations at Church

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have threatened to sue Enfield Public Schools if their graduation ceremonies are not moved out of a church.

"Students and their families should not have to choose between attending graduation and being subjected to proselytizing religious messages," said Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, in a statement Wednesday. "Yet that is exactly the choice that the Enfield Schools impose on students and their families."

According to the two civil liberties groups, Enrico Fermi High School and Enfield High have been holding graduations at The First Cathedral in Bloomfield, Conn., since 2007 and 2008, respectively. The venue was chosen as work was being done on the schools' football fields.

The ACLU first contacted the Enfield Board of Education in 2006 expressing its opposition and arguing that it constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The school district was asked to secure a religiously neutral location for the graduation ceremony.

During an Enfield Board meeting in October 2008, board members Susan Lavelli-Hozempa and Joyce Hall said they heard from students and parents regarding the ceremony venue and they preferred the First Cathedral.

Enrico Fermi High School Student Representative Samantha Reid said the majority of Fermi students wanted to go back to First Cathedral for their graduation while Enfield High School Alternate Student Representative Bryan William Dague said the majority of Enfield students wanted to graduate at the school.

Board members also noted that the church provided a large venue and helped save the district money.

The Board of Education is scheduled to hold two more meetings this year and the civil liberties groups are asking board members to "voluntarily abandon the practice." Otherwise, they will sue.

"Graduating students, their parents, their older and younger siblings, and their other family members and guests are coercively subjected to religious messages as the price of attending high-school commencement – a seminal event in a student's life," the two groups state in a letter to the attorney for the schools. "The selection of the Cathedral as a graduation venue further communicates to members of the Enfield Schools community that the concerns of religious minorities are not important to the school district, and that the district favors adherents of the majority religion."

Gregory Stokes, the new board of education chairman, told the Hartford Courant that the cathedral "makes it as secular as they can" and that it is "one of the best sites outside of Enfield."

The graduation ceremony site is going to be "one of the first issues we discuss in the next 30 days," he noted, and the decision may come down to resources.

"We may have to make a decision about where we spend our resources," he said, as reported by the local Courant. "A legal battle might end up costing more than using the fields for graduations."

Four other area public schools – East Hartford High School, South Windsor High School, Windsor High School and the Metropolitan Learning Center Magnet School – also have been using The First Cathedral for their graduations.

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