ENFIELD — 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.