Judge Denies Church Graduation Ceremonies

A federal judge has ruled that graduation ceremonies for Enfield High School in Connecticut cannot be held at a local church. US District Judge Janet Hall, who toured the church—First Cathedral in Bloomfield—ruled that even if the church covered all of the overt religious symbols, holding the secular ceremony in the church would violate the Constitution:

“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.

Proponents of holding the graduation at the non-denominational church still contend that they can make the Cathedral religiously neutral, but USA Today points out that “de-Jesusing” the building would be tough, pointing to large crosses on the building’s roof and over the main entrance. The building itself is one large religious symbol that cannot be disguised as anything but.

This is a huge, dove-shaped building with a lobby fountain shaped like Jesus’ tomb, with multi-story cross-emblazoned stained glass window.

The school has held its graduation ceremonies at the church the past two years without incident. The school board voted this year to hold the ceremony at the school but was dissuaded from their decision by the right wing religious group the Family Institute of Connecticut who “assured the board that the American Center for Law and Justice would fund any legal defense.”

Sure enough, two seniors and three of their parents filed suit to stop the ceremony from being held at the church, claiming it violated the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, and the judge agreed.

The American Center for Law and Justice has vowed to file an expedited appeal of the decision, hoping to have it overturned in time for the ceremonies on June 23 and 24.

The ACLU, which sued on behalf of the students and parents, hailed the decision:

“Hopefully now all Enfield Schools students and their families will feel included and welcome at the ceremonies,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “No student should ever have to feel like a second-class citizen at his or her own graduation.”

While I agree with that, I think the ACLU and the parents may be missing a teachable moment in all of this. My own high school graduation was held in the school’s auditorium, but the Baccalaureate service was held at the First Baptist Church in my hometown—the church where I was a member. At that service I learned an important lesson: my church was not as open as I thought it was, nor was my own mind. My high school was actually majority black—but my church was 100 percent white.

As we prepared for the service that night, I did a double take when a black woman, the mother of one of my friends, walked into our sanctuary. I realized, in that moment, that I had never seen a black person in our church—and I had to stop and wonder why. In that moment of cognitive dissonance, I learned a lot about myself, about my church, my faith, and about the person I truly wanted to be after high school.

Perhaps by holding the ceremony in the church, those who have taken their faith for granted, or held themselves in higher esteem than their “secular” friends, would also have an “ah-ha” moment about those they may consider “other” or “lesser than” because of their different faith, or lack of faith. That’s more education than a lifetime of school can offer.

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