Federal Judge to Rule Soon on Church Graduation Case

A federal judge in Connecticut is expected to soon decide whether or not it is OK for two high schools in the city of Enfield to hold their graduation ceremonies in a Baptist megachurch.

Though closing arguments in the case were heard on Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall said she needed more time to consider the case given its complexity. But at latest, the judge said, a decision on the case would be filed by early this coming week – just two weeks before the graduating classes of Enfield and Enrico Fermi High Schools are expected to walk the stage.

"[Judge Hall] said she would try to rule before the end of the holiday weekend," reported the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut, which filed the suit against Enfield Public Schools together with the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church.

The groups, which filed suit earlier this month 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.

The Christian legal group says the main reason the Enfield school district chose to hold graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral was financial. The church, ACLJ argues, is $8,000 to $40,000 cheaper than holding graduations at comparable facilities.

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." And any religious symbols the church has will be removed or covered up during the graduation to keep the event purely secular.

Despite the guarantee, an attorney with Americans United insisted that religious symbolism permeates First Cathedral and will still be evident no matter which items church officials cover or remove.

The school board is wrong to use the church, as it will have a public school graduation in a building that makes the plaintiffs uneasy and can be viewed as a tacit embrace by the government of a religious viewpoint, said Alex Luchenitser, according to the Connecticut-based Hartford Courant newspaper.

As of Sunday, no ruling on the case had yet been posted on the website of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. Hall had said Thursday that any ruling she issued would be quickly posted.

The graduation ceremonies of Enfield and Fermi High Schools have been scheduled for June 23 and June 24, respectively.