ACLU And Americans United File Lawsuit Over Public School Graduations At Church

For Immediate Release

ACLU and Americans United
Contact: 

Robyn Shepherd, ACLU, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org
Andrew Schneider, ACLU of Connecticut, (860) 523-9146 ext. 219; aschneider@acluct.org 
Joe Conn, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, (202) 466-3234; conn@au.org

ACLU And Americans United File Lawsuit Over Public School Graduations At Church

Commencement Ceremonies In Sectarian Facility Violate Students' Rights

ENFIELD, CT - The
American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans
United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in
federal court charging that the Enfield Public Schools' decision to
hold their high school graduation ceremonies at a Christian church is
an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The groups are bringing the legal
action on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three of their
parents. The lawsuit asserts that holding commencement at First
Cathedral, a Bloomfield church replete with religious signs and
symbols, violates the separation of church and state and the religious
liberty rights of students. The complaint points out that there are
many secular facilities in the area that the Enfield Schools could use,
including a number that compare favorably to the Cathedral in terms of
cost, size and distance from Enfield.

"The Board of Education has
unnecessarily decided to use taxpayers' money to hold the graduation
ceremonies in a church when comparable and affordable secular
facilities are available," said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of
the ACLU of Connecticut. "By endorsing one set of religious beliefs
over any other, the board's action has created a divisive atmosphere in
Enfield where those with minority religious beliefs are afraid to speak
out publicly."

The ACLU and Americans United have
engaged in lengthy correspondence with Enfield Schools officials about
this matter, seeking to resolve the issue outside of court. Officials
at four other Connecticut schools agreed to stop using First Cathedral
for graduation. Members of the Enfield Board of Education at first
agreed to not use the church. But on April 13, they changed their minds
following heavy lobbying from a religious organization.

"Public school students have a right
to attend their graduation without feeling like they're taking part in
a religious service," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director
of Americans United. "The use of a church for this important milestone
is clearly inappropriate."

"We have made a good-faith effort to
work with school officials so non-Christian students would not have to
feel like second-class citizens at their own graduation," said Daniel
Mach, Director of the ACLU Program for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
"We're disappointed that the Enfield Schools have changed their
position and forced this issue into court."

First Cathedral is festooned with
Christian iconography, and the stage where students receive diploma
packets is surrounded by a 25-foot-tall cross, banners reading "Jesus
Christ Is Lord" and "I am GOD" and seven symbols representing Jesus.
The facade of the church features five large Christian crosses and
another large cross towers over its roof. The church's lobby contains a
fountain in the shape of a cross surrounded by a frame in the shape of
a tomb. Large-screen televisions throughout the sanctuary display the
message, "This is God's House Where Jesus Christ Is Lord," while
students and guests wait for the ceremony to begin.

"The Enfield Schools officials have
a responsibility to make certain that all seniors — regardless of what
their religious beliefs are — can attend and enjoy their graduation,"
Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser said.
"Selecting a facility that exposes students to proselytizing religious
messages is unconstitutional and wrong."

With only seven weeks before the
graduations, the ACLU and Americans United decided to file the lawsuit
today so that the court has enough time to decide the case without the
graduations being disrupted. The organizations remain willing to listen
to reasonable proposals to resolve the matter without the court's
intervention.

The plaintiffs in the Does v. Enfield Public Schools case have requested to remain anonymous.

The legal team handling the case
includes Luchenitser, Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Steven Gey
Fellow Devin M. Cain of Americans United; Legal Director Sandra J.
Staub and Staff Attorney David J. McGuire of the ACLU of Connecticut;
and Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion
and Belief.

A copy of the legal complaint can be read at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/does-v-enfield-public-schools-complaint

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available at: www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of Connecticut is available at: www.acluct.org

Additional information about Americans United for Separation of Church and State is available at: www.au.org

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