A Florida public school board has agreed to stop conducting graduation ceremonies in overtly religious settings, settling a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Brevard County School Board voted unanimously Oct. 25 to stop using religious venues for high school graduation ceremonies. The action ends the AU lawsuit, which the organization brought earlier this year on behalf of Brevard County parents who objected to use of the Calvary Chapel in Melbourne.
The parents noted that the church is not a neutral setting and that its sanctuary is dominated by a large cross.
“Public school graduation ceremonies are a time to celebrate the academic achievement of all students,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It is heartening that the school board has agreed to conduct future graduation ceremonies in settings where all students and their families will feel welcome.”
Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said the board’s decision is best for all concerned.
“I am pleased that this conflict is being resolved,” said Khan. “I commend the school board for deciding to settle this matter without a time-consuming and expensive legal battle. This settlement will save the taxpayers’ money while protecting the constitutional rights of students in the district.”
On May 18, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell allowed several Brevard County high schools to conduct their graduation ceremonies at Calvary Chapel with its religious symbols exposed because there was not time to find an alternative venue. The judge, however, allowed the legal challenge to continue and strongly indicated that he agreed with AU’s position.
In his Musgrove v. School Board of Brevard County decision, Presnell chastised school officials for using the church for the school ceremonies and agreed with Americans United’s assertions that neutral locations were the proper forums for such events.
The settlement of the case, which now goes to the judge for final approval, states that the school board is barred “from holding graduation ceremonies for any schools in Brevard County School District in churches or any other houses of worship in which religious iconography is visible – to participants or to anyone in attendance – on either the outside or the inside of the building.”
The settlement orders the school board to pay $26,500 to Americans United for the costs and attorney fees incurred in bringing the suit and allows AU to file future motions with the court in the event the school board fails to comply with the settlement’s mandates.