Commencement Clash Ceases (For Now): Conn. School Board Won’t Appeal Court Ruling Barring Church-Based Graduation

The Enfield, Conn., school board has wasted enough time (and taxpayer money) on this matter.

There’s good news out of Enfield, Conn.: The school board has decided not to appeal a federal court ruling barring them from holding their high school graduations in a large evangelical church.

You might recall that Americans United, the ACLU of Connecticut and the national ACLU filed suit to block the board from having commencement ceremonies at First Cathedral in Bloomfield.

AU and the ACLU represent students and parents who did not want to have this important ceremony take place in a church festooned with the symbols of one particular religion. We took this action only after sending several letters to the school board, urging them to use a secular facility.

The board at first agreed to stop using the church but then reversed itself after the Family Institute of Connecticut, a Religious Right group affiliated with Focus on the Family, began a lobbying campaign.

Family Institute leaders contacted Greg Stokes, chairman of the education board, and urged him to go back to First Cathedral. In an e-mail to supporters, the Family Institute wrote that if the graduation ceremonies were not returned to the church “it will increase the power of aggressive secularism and cause further harm to the proper role of faith communities in our state.”

The Institute referred the board to TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which agreed to represent the board in court. The case was argued before U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall, who actually took the time to visit First Cathedral herself.

Hall ruled in favor of AU and the ACLU on May 31.

At first, Vincent McCarthy, the ACLJ attorney who is handling the case, vowed to appeal. But after spending a few days thinking it over, the school board has decided on a different course. Members voted 5-4 June 3 not to appeal Hall’s ruling to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Graduation ceremonies will take place June 23 and 24 at the two high schools in the district.

“Appealing would not have meant we were going to the cathedral,” said board member Judith Apruzzese-Desroches. “We need to get it done. We need to provide something for these students who are graduating. The board needs to move on and establish a graduation site and get back to education.”

Indeed.

The board has wasted enough time (and taxpayer money) on this matter. As AU pointed out repeatedly during an injunction hearing, there were plenty of secular options the board could have used. For some reason, members seemed to determine to stick with First Cathedral, the least appropriate option.

This blogger for the Hartfort Courant got it right: At a time when public school budgets are being slashed, squandering funds on a lawsuit like this is misguided. The legal fight was never necessary. The board should have stuck with its original vote not to use First Cathedral rather than take the counsel of the Religious Right.

The board’s vote does not mean the case is over. Hall ruled on a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the larger issues brought by the case are moving forward. The best thing the board could do now would be to discuss a permanent settlement of this matter. They could best do that by promising to hold future commencement exercises in facilities that are welcoming to all.