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Judge Bars Use of Church for Graduation Ceremonies

By Mark Walsh — June 01, 2010 1 min read
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A federal district judge has blocked a Connecticut school district from holding high school graduation ceremonies at a large Christian church.

The Enfield school district’s use of First Cathedral Church, a Baptist mega-church in Bloomfield, Conn., would likely violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion, U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall of Bridgeport, Conn., said in a May 31 ruling.

“The court concludes that holding 2010 graduations at First Cathedral would require a conformity of the graduating seniors at Enfield and Fermi high schools that is too high an exaction to withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Judge Hall said in Does v. Enfield Public Schools.

The judge noted that those attending the graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral would encounter a large cross on the cathedral’s roof, another large central cross at the cathedral’s main entrance, a stained-glass depiction of worshipers in the cathedral’s main entrance, and yet another large cross behind the stage that “undoubtedly constitutes the focal point of the entire sanctuary.”

“A reasonable observer attending the 2010 graduations would have no choice but to conclude that the message displayed on the jumbo-screens during the 2009 graduation ceremonies was exactly accurate: ‘This is God’s house where Jesus Christ is Lord.’ That message will continue to be transmitted, and received, even if the jumbo-screens will no longer display it at the 2010 ceremonies,” Judge Hall said.

The school district has used the church for commencement exercises for several years, but this year it was challenged by an anonymous group of families in a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. I blogged about the suit here last month.

The judge noted that at least one alternative site considered by the Enfield school board—Symphony Hall in nearby Springfield, Mass.—met most criteria for the commencement exercises and offered rent that was some $5,000 cheaper than First Cathedral for the two high schools’ graduation ceremonies, which are scheduled for late June.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.