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Public School Graduations + Megachurch Don't Mix: Lawsuit

In the latest skirmish in a war older than the Republic, the ACLU's Connecticut chapter and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have filed a lawsuit to stop the Enfield Public Schools in Connecticut from holding high school graduations in a megachurch.

The megachurch in question is The First Cathedral in Bloomfield.

A snippet from the Americans United press release:

The groups are bringing the legal action on behalf of two Enfield High School seniors and three of their parents. The lawsuit asserts that holding commencement at First Cathedral, a Bloomfield church replete with religious signs and symbols, violates the separation of church and state and the religious liberty rights of students.

The complaint points out that there are many secular facilities in the area that the Enfield Schools could use, including a number that compare favorably to the Cathedral in terms of cost, size and distance from Enfield.

"Public school students have a right to attend their graduation without feeling like they're taking part in a religious service," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The use of a church for this important milestone is clearly inappropriate."

Americans United and the ACLU have engaged in lengthy correspondence with Enfield Schools officials about this matter, seeking to resolve the issue outside of court. Officials at four other Connecticut schools agreed to stop using First Cathedral for graduation. Members of the Enfield Board of Education at first agreed to not use the church. But on April 13, they changed their minds, after being heavily lobbied by a right-wing religious organization.

The school dispute gives national groups on either end of the ideological spectrum a chance to square off against each other.

While Americans United, long led by Rev. Barry A Lynn, and the Connecticut ACLU, would skew liberal, the American Center for Law and Justice, skews conservative and its leader, Jay Sekulow, has a high profile on issues of religion in public life.

In fact, Lynn and Sekulow have kept up a running debate on the blog.

In their lawsuit, Americans United and the ACLU state:

1. On January 26, 2010, the Enfield Board of Education voted to hold the 2010
Enfield Public Schools' high-school graduations on school property. But after months of
aggressive lobbying by a religious organization, the Board voted on April 13, 2010, to instead
hold the graduations at the First Cathedral, a Christian church. There, Enfield seniors are to
receive their diplomas underneath a large Christian cross and banners reading "Jesus Christ is
Lord" and "I am GOD." Virtually every aspect of the Cathedral's architecture has inherent
religious symbolism and is a reflection of the "one true mission of the church: to win souls to
Jesus Christ."

2. Holding a public-school graduation in such a religious environment violates the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the location coerces students and parents to receive the overwhelming religious message of the Cathedral as the price of attending a seminal event in their lives; communicates a message of governmental favoritism of the Christian religion; entails the use of public funds to support religion-infused graduations; and excessively entangles the Schools with a religious institution. The practice also violates Article Seventh of the Connecticut Constitution, which provides that "no person shall by law be compelled to . . . support, nor be . . . associated with, any congregation, church or religious association."