WINDSOR — The Windsor Board of Education voted late Monday to stop holding public high school graduation ceremonies at a local Christian church. With this decision, all five area school districts that had been holding graduations at the church have voted to halt the practice. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State had objected to the school districts’ practice of holding graduations at The First Cathedral in Bloomfield, Connecticut, a 120,000 square foot facility steeped in Christian symbols and iconography, calling for the graduations to instead be held at any of a number of secular locations available in the area.
“Under our constitutional system, public school officials should not endorse particular religious faiths,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The decision by the Windsor Board of Education, and similar recent actions by other school districts in Connecticut, will help ensure that no graduating student will feel like a second-class participant in these important celebrations.”
The ACLU and Americans United last fall sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the Windsor, Enfield, East Hartford and South Windsor Public Schools, as well as the Metropolitan Learning Center Magnet School in Bloomfield, seeking information about their use of The First Cathedral as a high-school graduation venue. The groups also sent a letter last fall to the Enfield Public Schools, arguing that graduating students, their families and other guests are unconstitutionally subjected to religious messages when attending high school commencement and that “students and family members of minority religions, as well as those who do not subscribe to any religion at all, are immersed in a religious environment of a faith not their own.” Windsor last night became the last of the five school districts to decide to move its graduations after this correspondence was sent.
“Changing the location of these schools’ high school graduations acknowledges the important role of diversity in our school systems,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United Executive Director. “It helps to ensure that students and their families are not made to feel unwelcome at a school event on account of their religious beliefs.”
The ceremonies had been held at The First Cathedral despite the existence of many secular alternatives in the surrounding area, some of which are less expensive.
“School officials did the right thing by moving their graduations,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, Senior Litigation Counsel for Americans United. “While the schools’ decisions may be unpopular with many local residents, moving the graduations upholds the Bill of Rights, whose very purpose was to protect the rights of religious and other minorities.”
The facade of The First Cathedral features five large Christian crosses, and another large cross towers over the cathedral’s roof. There is a fountain in the shape of a cross surrounded by a frame in the shape of a tomb in the church’s lobby, and on the way into the sanctuary where the graduations take place, students and parents pass underneath large banners on which biblical scriptures are written. During the graduation ceremony, students are seated underneath a giant cross in a window at the front of the sanctuary, and to the left of the cross, hangs a banner that reads, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” There are also many large-screen televisions throughout the sanctuary that display the message, “This is God’s House Where Jesus Christ Is Lord,” while students and guests wait for the ceremony to begin.
“Regardless of intent, when schools host graduation at The First Cathedral, they devalue the faith of students and families in the religious minority,” said David McGuire, staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut. “By agreeing to move graduation to a secular venue, the schools have demonstrated they value the religious diversity of all their students.”