(CN) – A public high school’s plan to hold graduation ceremonies in a Christian church is unconstitutional, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled Monday. U.S. District Judge Janet Hall ordered the Enfield Public Schools to find a venue that doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.
For the past two years, Enfield High School held commencement at the First Cathedral, a church in Bloomfield, due to construction on its athletic fields. Other Hartford-area schools have also held graduations there.
The Enfield School Board initially voted to hold the 2010 ceremonies at the schools themselves, citing financial considerations and a desire to “bring the kids home.”
But the board reversed its decision after the Family Institute of Connecticut lobbied to keep the ceremonies at the cathedral. The institute, which promotes Christian principles being “re-employed in our society and its public policy,” assured the board that the American Center for Law and Justice would fund any legal defense.
Two high school seniors and three of their parents sued, claiming the religious location violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. They said there were plenty of secular alternatives that didn’t contain the religious symbols found in the cathedral, including three large crosses that couldn’t be covered or removed.
Judge Hall agreed and granted their request for an injunction.
“A reasonable observer attending the 2010 Enfield graduations would perceive the message that Enfield endorsed the readily perceptible religious views of First Cathedral based upon the character of that forum,” Hall wrote.
Holding the June 23 and 24 ceremonies at First Cathedral violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, she concluded.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which represented the students and their parents, praised Hall’s ruling.
“The Enfield schools’ plan to hold the ceremonies in a church created an unnecessary divisive atmosphere for what should be a positive and inclusive event for all students,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut.