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Posted at 4:00 AM ET, 06/ 1/2010

School graduations in church ruled unconstitutional

By Valerie Strauss

A federal judge has ruled that a Connecticut school system’s practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in a Christian church is unconstitutional and that a different venue must be found.

The decision Monday by Judge Janet Hall was made in a suit against the Enfield Public School district, which had scheduled to hold the commencement of two schools, Enfield High and Fermi High, at First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield on June 23 and 24.

Hall ruled that use of the church for graduation violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which forbids any part of the government from endorsing a religion. Holding graduation ceremonies in an identifiable church would effectively mean that the school system was endorsing a religion, she ruled.

Enfield High held graduation at the church in 2008 and 2009; Enrico Fermi High for the last three years. Schools in several other districts had also been doing so for years despite complaints from some families about the numerous religious symbols and banners inside the church.

Some of the symbols were to be covered, but others could not be. In fact, Hall ruled that the Enfield school district's involvement in covering up religious symbols constituted an intrusion into religious matters that was not constitutional.

This year, members of the Enfield Board of Education had agreed not to use the church, along with four other school districts, but lobbying from a religious organization, the Family Institute of Connecticut, persuaded them to change their minds.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a suit on behalf of two Enfield High seniors and three of their parents, arguing that the graduation plan violated the First Amendment .

The complaint said there are many secular facilities in the area, including some that compare favorably to the cathedral in terms of cost, size and distance from Enfield.

Schools paid $9,200 to use the cathedral while at least one other comparable site was more than $5,000 less, according to Hall's ruling.

Said the ruling:
Based upon its findings, the court concludes, on the record before it, that the [defendants] have clearly demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of the injunction and a substantial likelihood of success on the merits that holding the graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 1, 2010; 4:00 AM ET
Categories:  High School  | Tags:  commencement and church, enfield graduation, enfield high school and graduation, enfield schools, federal judge rules on graduation in church, fermi high school and graduation, graduation and church and unconstitutional, graduation and establishment clause, graduation in church, judge declares graduation in church unconstitutional, judge janet hall, judge janet hall and schools, judge rules about graduation, ruling on graduation in church  
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Comments

Why the Conn school districts allowed this to go on for the earlier 3 years at such a high cost much less the Constitutionality of it re Church and State is the question. For a state having their own share of financial difficulties and then to pay out such high monies makes me wonder if the Churches involved milked the school boards for much more than they should have. However, what does anger me is the pressure from various religious and family groups to have the services in a Christian religious community is plain wrong. This Evangelical Christian movement attempting to force their religious beliefs upon all Americans is just plain wrong and unconstitutional and presents the need for the other side of America to rise up against this movement.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou94 | June 1, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Good move. My niece's graduation was in a church, and a cross covered the entire area behind the stage. Very distracting and disturbing, especially since we're in a very diverse area where so many of us are not Christian.

Posted by: DWinFC | June 1, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I can't imagine what the uproar would have looked like if a public school held graduation in a mosque. Good ruling.

Posted by: 6thsense79 | June 1, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps they wanted it in a church because they wanted to be molested.

Posted by: kenk3 | June 1, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm surprised this had to go to court. Amazing that people who made this decision are in charge of students. Also, in this day in age with dwindling school budgets why would a school district pay $5,000 more to a church for graduation.

Posted by: rlj1 | June 1, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Obvious choice. Visit the church as part of a class to better understand world religions, iconography, etc, but don't make people stand in front of religious sysmbols at graduation. There are many, many, other options that satisfy constitutional protections.

Posted by: cadam72 | June 1, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Obvious choice. Visit the church as part of a class to better understand world religions, iconography, etc, but don't make people stand in front of religious sysmbols at graduation. There are many, many, other options that satisfy constitutional protections.

Posted by: cadam72 | June 1, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it about time the schools scaled back on commencement festivities anyway? Granted, if the school is going to hold a ceremony and include families, they need to find a large enough facility; we certainly don't want to go back to the situations that have sometimes prevailed, when graduates had to choose which relatives to invite or when elderly or disabled relatives couldn't attend because they would have to sit on bleachers. Originally, graduates simply showed up in their best clothes listened (or didn't listen) to a minister pray, the principal congratulate them, and the student with the top grades say what the administration expected them to say, were handed a diploma and their schooling was done.

Today, they go to a separate facility, rehearse, pick up their rentd cap and gown (and are told they need to dress up anyway if the rentals have to be turned in immediately after the ceremony), return to the facility earlier than their families, line up in a certain order, march in, listen to several speeches, sit while their names are called and all sorts of recognition given (including dozens of valedictorians), receive their diplomas, turn the tassels on their rented caps in a "moving" ceremony, and in most cases go home and start preparing for the next step in their education.

For most students, high school commencement is not the end of education and not too many these days are the first graduates in their families, but the less significant the occasion, the more elaborate it becomes.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 1, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

You all need to get a grip and become better informed as to exactly what the First Amendement says. The judge in this case is completely wrong. The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof:" doesn't say anything about a school district being considered Congress, nor does it forbid any member of government from endorsing a religion. It says specifically that CONGRESS may not make laws. A school district is not Congress making laws. Holding graduation ceremonies at a church, any church, is not Congress making laws. You will not find the "separation of church and state" anywhere in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is not infallible. They made a mistake in the 1946/47 ruling that inserted this concept into the interpretation of the First Amendment. They were wrong then, and the courts that continue to run out this interpretation continue to be wrong. They are wrong.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It is as simple as that.

Posted by: demathis | June 1, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

demathis, study Constitutional law, then get back to us.

Public schools are funded and managed by our government. Therefore, they cannot be seen to favor one religion over another, nor can they even favor religion over non-religion.

As a public school, they are subject to the laws that separate church and state, which one of our forefathers' most important positions in founding this country. To hold a public school commencement event in a church is not only ridiculous, but illegal.

And I know a few people will say, "What about majority rule?" To that I say, you cannot vote on whether or not to obey the law.

Posted by: TerranRich | June 1, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

TerranRich,

I don't need to be a Constiutional lawyer to be able to read and understand what is written in the Constitution. Show us in the Constitution where it says anything about the separation of church and state, or that it is "illegal" for a public school to hold a commencement event in a church. Since you are the Constitutional expert, please point out where the Constitution addresses the laws regarding the "separation of church and state" and which government agencies are subject to them. Maybe you just don't understand the meaning of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

As to your misguided knowledge about the "separation of church and state," allow me to illuminate you. I am not a Constitutional lawyer, but I have had several Constitutional law courses and have studied quite carefully where the idea of the "separation of church and state" came from. Thomas Jefferson did indeed write these words, but they were in a letter addresssed to the Danbury Baptist Convention in 1802. Interstingly enough he wrote these words as a warning to the Baptists that churches must be protected from interference by the state. It was in a Supreme Court Ruling in 1947 that the phrase was misused and misapplied. The current implied meaning of the "Separation of Church and State" metaphor and its use is just the opposite of what was intended and what historical facts justify.

You can look it up.

All of this has nothing to do with "majority rule." The Constitution says what it says and is not difficult to understand. The fact that this clause has been misinterpreted for more than 60 years by people like you doesn't mean that it implies something more than what is written. Our founders were pretty smart guys and wrote exactly what they meant to write. The Constitution is not a "living document."

Posted by: demathis | June 2, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

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