Conn. Schools Drop Church Graduation After AU Complaint

Five public schools in Connecticut have agreed to stop holding graduation ceremonies in a local church after Americans United advised them that the practice is unconstitutional.

The Windsor Board of Education voted in February to stop holding high school graduation ceremonies at The First Cathedral, a large evangelical church in Bloomfield. With this decision, all five area school districts that had been holding graduations at the church have voted to halt the practice, although one school district remains uncertain about where it will hold commencement.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut had objected to the school districts’ practice of holding graduations at The First Cathedral, 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.

“Changing the location of these schools’ high school graduations acknowledges the important role of diversity in our school systems,” said 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.”

Americans United and the ACLU 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.”

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 beneath 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.

Members of the Enfield School Board had initially voted to hold its graduation ceremonies at high schools but reversed themselves during a Feb. 23 meeting.

The board voted 5-3 to rescind its earlier vote, reported the Hartford Courant. The newspaper said many people in the community favor a non-school venue because the schools can’t accommodate large crowds.

While the Enfield Board does not appear to be seriously considering a return to the First Cathedral, AU continues to monitor the situation.

“School officials did the right thing by ending graduations at the Cathedral,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United. “No student or parent should be forced, as the price of attending graduation, to enter a religious environment of a faith to which they do not subscribe.”