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Religious Rites, Students’ Rights, and Rites of Passage

Daniel Bullard-Bates,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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July 19, 2012

For several years, the public high schools of Enfield, Connecticut held their graduation ceremony in the First Cathedral Church in nearby Bloomfield. Students, friends, and family entered the building under a large cross, passed through a lobby decorated with religious banners, and entered into the main sanctuary, where the graduation ceremony took place below a stained glass cross and two banners that read “Jesus Christ is Lord” and “I am God.” Attending graduation meant going to church.

No student should be forced to accept a religious message along with their diploma, and no parents should have to enter a house of worship to celebrate the accomplishments of their children. The rights of religious minorities were being ignored, and the Enfield Board of Education was giving taxpayer money to a religious institution, in violation of the U.S. and Connecticut Constitutions.

It seemed that all would be well when the Board decided to hold the 2010 graduation on school property. The problem of government entanglement with religion was solved, and no students would feel ostracized by their own school. Some non-Christian students were pleased and relieved by the decision, and made plans to go to the graduation they might otherwise have felt too uncomfortable to attend.

But when a religious organization, the Family Institute of Connecticut, aggressively lobbied for the graduation to be moved back to First Cathedral, the Board caved. It wasn’t a question of space, money, or even distance – secular venues were available that would have met all the schools’ needs – they wanted the graduation to be at First Cathedral, and they didn’t care who would be bothered by it.

A group of students and parents, represented by the ACLU, ACLU of Connecticut, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed a lawsuit to prevent the graduation from being held at First Cathedral, and a federal judge granted an injunction barring use of the church. The 2010, 2011, and 2012 graduations were all held on school grounds.

On July 18, 2012, the Enfield Board of Education finally agreed not to hold future graduations at First Cathedral, bringing an end to the lawsuit and peace of mind to all the students who wanted to celebrate their rite of passage without passing under a cross.

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