Religious Liberty Group Sues Fla. Public School District Over Graduation Ceremonies At Local Church

Students Should Not Be Forced To Attend A Graduation Ceremony Infused With Religious Elements, Says AU's Lynn

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked a federal court in Florida to block public high school graduation ceremonies from occurring in a church sanctuary that features a 25-foot cross.

In a lawsuit filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Americans United asked the court to declare planned high school graduation ceremonies at a Melbourne mega-church a violation of the First Amendment and order them moved to a neutral location.

At a minimum, says the AU complaint, the court should order Brevard County school officials to have the church's religious symbols covered during those public school ceremonies.

Americans United is representing parents and a student from Palm Bay High School, one of four Brevard County high schools that have scheduled commencements at Calvary Chapel in West Melbourne. The graduations are set to begin Thursday, May 19. Palm Bay's is scheduled for May 21.

"Public school students should not be forced to attend a house of worship in order to receive their diplomas," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This is a significant moment in these students' lives, and their school officials have decided to wrap the moment in religiosity. By holding these ceremonies in a mega-church festooned with religious symbols, school officials are showing contempt for the Constitution and little regard for the wishes of a number of families.

"It does not have to be this way," Lynn continued. "The school officials should conduct the ceremonies at neutral sites, as they've done on a number of occasions, or church officials should be cooperative and cover the church's religious symbols for these public school events."

In early May, on behalf of Palm Bay High School parents, Americans United sent a letter to Brevard County School Superintendent Richard A. DiPatri, urging that the school's commencement be held at a neutral site or that the church's numerous religious symbols be covered.

DiPatri wrote in a May 12 letter to Americans United that he saw no problems with conducting Palm Bay High's graduation ceremonies at Calvary Chapel.

The church's communications manager told a newspaper that its towering cross, which is displayed at the center of the church's stage, is built into the wall and that it would not be covered for the high school commencements.

In a May 13 letter to DiPatri, Americans United cites federal court precedent that states public school graduation ceremonies can take place in religious buildings only if all religious symbols are covered.

"The rationale of these decisions is that the presence of religious symbols and iconography at a site where a public school event is held sends the unconstitutional message that the government is associating itself with religion or a favored religious institution, and coerces students to be exposed to symbols of religious beliefs to which they do not subscribe," argues Americans United.

In its lawsuit, Americans United cites a 1992 Supreme Court decision. That case, Lee v. Weisman, notes that the rule is especially true for high school graduation ceremonies, as the "Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."

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.

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.