Connecticut School District Agrees To Stop Holding Graduation Ceremonies In Church

Americans United, ACLU Say Settlement Affirms Religious Liberty

The Enfield, Conn., Board of Education has agreed not to hold graduations in a Bloomfield church in order to settle a lawsuit filed by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Connecticut.

The three organizations filed suit against the Enfield Board of Education in May 2010 on behalf of two students and three parents who objected to holding the graduations of Enfield and Fermi high schools at the First Cathedral in Bloomfield, arguing that doing so violated the First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty.

“Holding a public school graduation in an intensely religious environment such as First Cathedral communicates a message of religious favoritism to students and parents,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser.  “We’re pleased that Enfield students will no longer have to choose between submitting to an unwelcome religious environment and missing their graduation ceremonies.”

In June 2010, federal District Court Judge Janet C. Hall issued a preliminary injunction barring use of the church. As a result, the 2010, 2011 and 2012 graduations for Enfield and Fermi high schools were held on school grounds. 

The settlement, approved July 18 by the Enfield Board of Education, ends the litigation.  The Board of Education agreed not to hold future graduations at the First Cathedral. Having achieved their goal of preventing Enfield from holding graduations in the First Cathedral, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the lawsuit and a claim for nominal damages.

From 2007 through 2009, the Enfield high schools held their graduations in the Cathedral’s sanctuary, underneath a 25-foot-tall stained-glass cross and large banners reading “Jesus Christ is Lord” and “I am GOD.” The schools did so even though more than a dozen non-religious sites in the area were available to host graduation ceremonies.

“The school board's decision to stop holding graduations in the church will protect the rights of students and their families and will bring the community back together,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “This assures that no one will be forced into an overtly religious setting like the First Cathedral’s sanctuary in order to attend a public school function.”

Said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, “No students or their families should feel like outsiders at their own graduation ceremony. The board's decision ensures that the students of Enfield can celebrate the milestone of graduation in an inclusive atmosphere.”

The case was litigated by Luchenitser, ACLU of Connecticut’s Legal Director Sandra Staub and Staff Attorney David McGuire, Mach, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, and former AU legal fellows Devin Cain and Robert Shapiro.

 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.