ACLU Threatens N.J. High School With Legal Action Over Graduation at Christian-Owned Site

A New Jersey high school with a 70-year tradition of hosting graduation ceremonies in a historic auditorium is standing firm against legal threats from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims the event violates the separation of church and state because of the Christian-owned site's religious displays.

For generations, graduates of Neptune High School have walked down the aisle of the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, where the impressive 6,500-seat venue dominates the landscape of one of the area’s most historic beach towns. Built in 1894, the auditorium is owned and operated by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group that owns not just the building, but all of the land beneath every home and structure in town.

The ACLU of New Jersey threatened legal action against the Neptune school district after an attendee at last year’s graduation ceremony took offense to the building’s religious symbols and Christian-based references -- among them a 20-foot white cross above the auditorium’s entrance. The ACLU asked the school to remove or cover up the cross and three other religious signs, arguing their visibility during a public school event is a First Amendment violation.

School officials responded by agreeing to change the graduation program to remove the student-led invocation and two hymns -- one titled “Onward Christian Soldiers” -- to rid the ceremony of any religious references.

“The program was not of a religious nature -- it was more tradition than anything else,” said Neptune Public Schools Superintendent David Mooij. “But we decided we would change the program and delete the things this individual found offensive.”

Removing or covering up the cross was another matter. The Camp Association said it could not cover the cross, said to have been a gift from movie director Woody Allen, who used the auditorium during shooting for the 1980 film "Stardust Memories." Nor would they cover up the two illuminated indoor signs – “Holiest to the Lord” and “So Be Ye Holy” – which are said to be the oldest operating electric signs in America.

“The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a Christian ministry, and we can’t change who we are,” said Scott Hoffman, the group’s chief operating officer. “We want this tradition to keep going as badly as anyone, but not at the expense of who we are.”

Mooij said the ACLU then requested that the school change its venue for the June 17 graduation – a move he said isn’t feasible. “We already printed 3,000 tickets, and there’s no comparable size venue anywhere around us.”

Mooij said the school board received a letter on Thursday from the ACLU saying they would “likely have to take legal recourse” if their demands to cover the cross and signs were not met.

An ACLU spokeswoman would not comment on what, if any, legal action is pending, saying only that the organization is working to resolve the matter through negotiations with the school.

The Great Auditorium, a nationally recognized landmark, is steeped in history. The building has hosted Ulysses S. Grant and six other U.S. presidents, as well as 27 of New Jersey’s governors. Mark Twain was a member of the auditorium’s board of directors, and religious leaders like the Rev. Billy Graham have spoken there.

The auditorium also functions as a concert venue for many secular events and has hosted acts as varied as the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra Jr., and Peter, Paul and Mary.

As for now, Mooij said the school has every intention of sticking with its graduation plans.

“There’s a lot of tradition in this community about using this building,” he said. “We’re hoping that it could be resolved through negotiations,” he said, “But we aren’t there yet.”