School Graduation At Fla. Church Allowed, But Case Proceeds

A federal judge allowed several Florida public high schools to conduct graduation ceremonies in a church, but did not slam the door on a legal challenge brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In early May, Americans United, on behalf of Brevard County high school parents and students, asked the school superintendent to move the planned graduations from a mega-church to a neutral venue.

When school officials declined, AU filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a judgment that use of the church, where a towering cross in the sanctuary would not be covered, violated the separation of church and state. In addition, Americans United argued for an injunction to prevent the 2005 ceremonies from occurring at the church or to have them moved to a neutral venue and an injunction to prevent future high school graduation ceremonies from occurring at church.

On May 18, the day before the first of four Brevard County high schools was to conduct commencement ceremonies at the Calvary Chapel in Melbourne, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell said there was too little time to force school officials to find an alternative venue.

Presnell, however, chastised the school officials for choosing the church for the commencement ceremonies and agreed with Americans United’s assertions that a neutral location was the proper forum for such events. Presnell said the case, Musgrove v. School Board of Brevard County, would proceed to determine whether future high school graduations would be allowed in religious settings.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he is pleased that Presnell sided with AU on the key constitutional issues involved and said the case will go forward.