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Like many decisions recently by federal district courts – the decision by the federal district court in Connecticut prohibiting two Enfield School District high schools from holding their graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral was simply wrong.
Unfortunately, the calendar did not permit an expedited appeal to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It’s important to note, however, that the case is still on appeal to the 2nd Circuit and we believe that both the facts and previous court decisions – including those from the Supreme Court – will ultimately result in a reversal of the federal district court decision.
Our position is that a church, mosque or synagogue is a neutral venue for a high school graduation. As the court in the Elmbrook federal district court case out of Wisconsin held with regard to a high school graduation in a church: a graduation ceremony in a church is not a church ceremony.
The Supreme Court has consistently held that religion is neither to be aided nor hindered which means that religion is to be treated neutrally. In Agostini, Justice O’Connor held that there had been a substantial change in Establishment Clause jurisprudence and that religion was no longer presumed to adversely affect children and adults that come into contact with it.
Federal appeals courts in several different cases have held that students singing in a choir at a church could not sue for their discomfort under the Establishment Clause, that voting in a church does not violate the Establishment Clause (Rabbinowitz and Otero), and that a post office in a church did not, in and of itself, violate the Establishment Clause in the Cooper case decided by the 2nd Circuit.
It is clear that as long as the church is not conducting a religious ceremony at the time, or mixing together religious and non-religious messages, it is a proper venue for many publicly supported neutral — or otherwise secular — activities.
Federal courts in Otero and Rabbinowitz have also taken a practical, common sense approach to this issue – unlike the district court in the Enfield case. These federal courts have held that the fact that churches contain religious images do not trigger Establishment Clause violations. These courts have noted that a reasonable person would know that the religious images on the walls of a church would belong to the church, not to the state, and therefore not conclude from a public event in a church that the state had endorsed religion.
Finally, the fact is that both principals of Enfield’s high schools testified that First Cathedral best met the needs that the high schools had for graduations. They also stated that First Cathedral had the most seats, was the most reasonable facility to provide all of the amenities like pre- and post-graduation staging areas, provided handicap access and elevators, and was substantially less expensive – all essential ingredients in determining the venue for graduation ceremonies.
Barry, this decision in Connecticut only makes it more difficult for public schools to make decisions about graduation venues. It provides no clarity and conflicts with previous decisions. And, like federal district court decisions we have debated here regarding other issues – it is by no means the end of the story.
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