Judge Says Enfield Cannot Hold Graduation in Cathedral

Judith Hernandez
Judith Hernandez

When Enfield's high school seniors graduate in a couple weeks, the ceremonies will not happen at First Cathedral in Bloomfield.

A federal court judge issued a ruling on Monday prohibiting the public school ceremony from happening at a religious venue.

On Monday, an attorney for Enfield schools said the district will ask the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to hear an expedited appeal.

The request will likely be filed Tuesday afternoon, said Enfield's attorney, Vincent McCarthy, of the American Center for Law and Justice.

Two Enfield high school students and their parents wanted to prevent the school from holding graduation in the church and the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought the suit, saying using the church for graduations would be unconstitutional.

“We acknowledge the profound belief of adherents to many faiths that there must be a place in the student’s life for precepts of a morality higher even than the law we today enforce,” the judge wrote. “While agreeing with that principle, it is the conclusion of this court that that “place” is not graduation night at First Cathedral for Enfield High School or Enrico Fermi High School.”

So, graduation happens in a few weeks, but it cannot happen at the cathedral. The graduations might now happen in the gymnasiums at both high schools.

"We are pleased that the court has found that holding a public high school graduation ceremony in an overtly religious setting is inappropriate when comparable secular facilities are available," Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement.

"It had unlimited seating comfort, convenience, security, safety. It was truly the best venue for the best price and that's what it was based upon," Greg Stokes, chairman of Enfield’s board of education.

Andrew Silva, the valedictorian, is one of several disappointed students.

"Very disappointed and I know that a lot of seniors are also disappointed," he said.

Chelsea Wawrzenski, a senior, said some students will avoid graduation all together.

"A lot of students have decided it's not even worth it if it's' here, so they think boycotting is best for them and I am very highly considering it," she said. 

The district began holding graduation ceremonies for its two high schools at First Cathedral in 2007 when the athletic fields at Fermi High were too torn up for the ceremony. Religious objects were either removed or covered.

The ACLU and students they represent asked the district to reconsider in November before they struck a deal with the church.

On Jan. 26, the Enfield Board voted six to three to hold its two 2010 graduations at the schools themselves, but that vote was rescinded by a five to three vote on Feb. 23.

The school system explored other off-site venues, the judge found, including Western New England College, Springfield Symphony Hall, the Mass Mutual Center, the Bushnell Theater, XL Center, and the Connecticut Convention Center.

“Having considered all three analytical frameworks for determining whether the government action at issue has a principal effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, the court concludes that it does not have such an effect, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause. By holding public high school graduations in an identifiable church, under the circumstances and context of this situation that would be known to a reasonable observer, Enfield Public Schools endorses religion,” the judge ruled. “By attempting to “neutralize” the First Cathedral by covering up many (albeit not all) of its religious images, Enfield Public Schools unconstitutionally entangles itself with religion. And finally, by requiring a graduating senior -- or a parent of one -- to enter First Cathedral in order to be able to participate in his or her graduation -- or to watch their child graduate -- Enfield Public Schools has coerced plaintiffs to support religion.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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