Judge blocks public school graduations held in churches

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — A Connecticut school district will file a federal appeal after a district judge ruled May 31 that hosting its graduation ceremonies in a church is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled against Enfield and Enrico Fermi high schools, even though district officials agreed to cover all religious references at the church during the ceremony. The district selected the site because it was large enough to accommodate the guests at the right price.

"In this case, the court simply got it wrong," said Vincent McCarthy, senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the schools. "There need not be a constitutional crisis simply because a religious facility is used for a clearly secular purpose."

With the two graduations set for June 23 and 24 at First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield, ACLJ was expected to request an expedited appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.

"Constitutional law in this area is clear," McCarthy said. "Holding a secular event at a religious facility does not constitute an endorsement of or entanglement with religion."

In her ruling, Hall concluded that hosting the ceremonies at the church amounted to government endorsement of religion and that covering the religious icons failed to mitigate the fact that the plaintiffs were still required to enter a building that boasted a large cross on its roof. Other prominent crosses are also displayed in the main entrance and above a stage.

"Based upon its findings, the court concludes, on the record before it, that they 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," Judge Hall wrote in her ruling, adding that hosting the public school event there could be perceived as "coercing students to enter a church and 'support or participate in religion' but (it) can also be viewed as coercing the violation of one's own religious beliefs."

McCarthy said he is confident his clients will succeed with the appeal.

"We are confident that legal precedent and common sense will ultimately win out. We look forward to arguing the case more fully in the court of appeals," the attorney said.

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