For Immediate Release
Americans United and ACLU File Lawsuit Over Public School Graduations at Church
Public Schools Violate Students’ Rights by Holding Commencements in Sectarian Facility
WASHINGTON - Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of
Connecticut and the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit
in federal court charging that the Enfield (Conn.) Public Schools'
decision to hold their high school graduation ceremonies at a Christian
church unconstitutionally imposes religion on students.
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.
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.
"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."
Americans United and the ACLU 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, after being heavily lobbied by a
right-wing religious organization.
With only seven weeks before the graduations, AU and the ACLU 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.
Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser said,
"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. Selecting a facility that exposes
students to proselytizing religious messages is unconstitutional and
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut,
said, "The Board of Education has unnecessarily decided to use taxpayer
money to hold the graduation ceremonies in a church when comparable and
affordable secular facilities are available for graduations. 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."
Added Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program for Freedom of
Religion and Belief, "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. We're disappointed that
the Enfield Schools have changed their position, and forced this issue
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 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;
the ACLU of Connecticut's Legal Director Sandra J. Staub and Staff
Attorney David J. McGuire; and the national ACLU's Mach.
Additional information about Americans United for Separation of
Church and State is available at: www.au.org.
Additional information about the ACLU of Connecticut is available at:
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion
and Belief is available at: www.aclu.org/religion.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.