Published May 26, 2011
School officials in Neptune Township, N.J., have bowed to the demands of the ACLU and will cover decades-old religious signs posted in the historic Great Auditorium to allow a 70-year tradition of high school graduations to continue.
Instead of the sign, "Holiness to the Lord," a banner will be posted over it saying, "Neptune Township School District ... A Community of Learners." In addition, a banner with the words "So Be Ye Holy" will be covered with another banner saying, “Neptune High School: A School of Excellence and No Excuses."
The new banners are meant to appease the American Civil Liberties Union, which had demanded the school district remove all religious signs and symbols from the Methodist-owned auditorium in Ocean Grove, claiming it made non-Christians attending public school graduations feel uncomfortable.
Neptune Schools Superintendent David Mooij said he's glad there is a resolution everyone seems able to live with. "We're very pleased. We've worked from the beginning to collaborate on a solution," Mooij said.
"The town became stronger. It was a galvanizing moment for the town ... There's a lot of faith in this town. Faith that people expressed in prayer actually led to a true, amicable resolution," he said.
The conflict began after the grandmother of one of last year's graduates complained not only about the large white cross adorning the top of the buildings' facade, but of the religious signs inside, and what she felt was a heavily religious tone to the ceremony, which included student-led invocations and the singing of Christian hymns, most notably "Onward Christian Soldiers."
The school agreed to cut out the student-led invocations and the hymns. But the 6,500-seat Great Auditorium is run by the Camp Meeting Association. It is the iconic, center piece of the Methodist Church-based organization's property, which comprises the bulk of the land in Ocean Grove. The historical building had become the sight for both civic and community events. The association agreed to cover the cross on the inside, but not the cross on the outside or the antique lighted religious signs.
As a compromise, the ACLU, the school district and the Camp Meeting Association agreed that the religious signs inside would be covered with school banners, and that students, faculty and attendees will enter the building through the side doors to avoid entering under the cross.
In a statement the ACLU said: "We are pleased to have successfully resolved this matter with the Neptune Board of Education. We are satisfied that the actions by the district will allow students of all faiths and backgrounds to enjoy their graduation ceremony without feeling like outsiders based on religious differences.
Having the students and audience enter at the side and back doors is a moot point because there are doors directly beneath the white cross. All of the Great Auditorium doors are on the sides.
Mooij believes the stipulation is mainly because of past cases, and as a precedent for future cases, as more and more school districts are faced with challenges to holding graduations in large religious centers.
In the end he says, the "kids learned and even faculty learned from this."
Mooij said many students switched their school papers to compare their predicament to the Brown vs. Topeka case, the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate America's schools.
That legal challenge came from one person's voice as well. A little African-American girl challenged her state over her right to attend an all-white school that was closer to her home, instead of the black school much farther away.
It's a famous case where one person's individual's rights created changes that in the end were good for America.
What the students of Neptune discovered, says Mooij, by comparing the two situations, is that every case should be decided on its own merit. He said the general comment was that, "There is no one decision that's right in all cases."
In the end, Neptune Township is living out their motto and new banners ... "A Community of Learners."