Conn. School Board Votes Not to Fight Judge's Ruling to Bar Graduation Ceremonies in Megachurch

A Connecticut School District's showdown with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State has come to end -- at least for a year.

With the clock ticking, the Enfield School Board voted 5-4 Thursday night not to appeal a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Janet Hall, who ruled Monday that it was unconstitutional for the district's two high schools to hold their commencement ceremonies at a church.

The vote means the schools will hold their 2010 graduation ceremonies on school grounds.

"We're quite pleased about the vote," said Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The board did the right thing to help the students in the community put this behind them. It allows the schools and the principals to finalize graduation instead having plans up in the air. We want to assure every student can enjoy the graduation without it becoming very divisive.”

But his opponent in the case was far from pleased with the school board's vote.

"I was shocked. I was stunned," said Vincent McCarthy, the attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice. "I thought the decision was pro forma. We had a good chance."

School Board Chairman Greg Stokes was also surprised. Up until the start of Thursday night's meeting, he'd gotten assurances from five board members that they would vote for the appeal.

"The plan was to vote to appeal then work on the backup plan just in case," Stokes said. "I don't know what happened."

Jordan Sekulow, an attorney with the Center for Law and Justice, had felt all along that the case was winnable and that Judge Hall did not consider two similar cases that ruled in favor of the school districts. "This kind of case can go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it impacts every school district, and that's why it's important," Sekulow said.

Enfield was one of five school districts in Connecticut that planned to hold commencement ceremonies for its high schools at First Cathedral, a megachurch in Bloomfield with state-of-the-art facilities, plenty of legroom and ample parking.

School Board president Greg Stokes says, "When they (the school board) narrowed it down, we came to conclusion as a board that First Cathedral was the right place for the right price.... one-stop shopping."

Stokes said the Enfield football field was off limits because the newly installed Astroturf required a protective covering. (Failure to protect the turf would nullify its warranty.) The small gym would allow only two tickets per students, and there's no air conditioning -- a cause for concern in late June. But now that the board has decided not to appeal, the gym will be the likely site.

Enfield wasn't the only school district singing the praises of First Cathedral.

"We had a great ceremony there," said Mary Alice Dwyer Hughes, chairwoman of the East Hartford School Board. She said the parents loved it and "the kids got a great ceremony."

Last fall the ACLU sent out letters to each of the five districts telling them that if they continued with plans to hold graduations at the church, they would be in violation of the Constitution's establishment clause and that the ACLU would take legal action.

Four of the schools heeded the warning and dropped their plans. Enfield, which has two high schools, stayed the course -- but only after being assured by the Center for Law and Justice that it would handle the legal costs.

On Thursday, the Enfield board voted not to appeal because it wanted to give the students certainty about the location of their commencement. The decision was met by loud boos and jeers from parents and students who packed the meeting.

But for at least the three of the other four districts, the issue came down to money. With limited budgets, the school districts felt it was safer to back down rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars in a legal battle.

"We've got to a worry about keeping teachers and keeping our expenses down," said Dwyer Hughes. "Money is tight."

"The bottom line," said Dr. Elizabeth Feser, superintendent of Windsor Schools, "the board felt that if it remained with the Cathedral and faced the ACLU, the cost to the taxpayers would be significant and the board could not justify that cost."

Windsor School District has held commencement ceremonies at First Cathedral since 2001. Only in 2008 did it change venues, because of a scheduling conflict. In the past all nine school board members voted in favor of the megachurch venue. Dr. Feser said the board also contacted a local rabbi to ensure that he did not have a problem with it.

Now East Hartford is paying double for an alternative location, and Windsor is paying double and a half. But both school districts, as well as South Windsor, say it is cheaper than waging a protracted legal battle.

"We received similar legal advice from our council, that the litigation cost would be substantial," said Rob Kozaczka, superintendent of schools in South Windsor. "We had to give closure to our kids so they would know where their commencement ceremony would be held."

Sekulow said he had hoped the Enfield case would set an example for other school districts nationwide. "They get a lot of scary letters from the ACLU which has no precedent whatsoever from the Supreme Court, to say this is unconstitutional," he said. "In fact, the precedent from other circuit courts and districts is on the side of the school districts."

But Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which fought with the ACLU to have the venue changed, said the judge made the right call. “The court’s ruling will ensure that no student or parent has to choose between missing their own graduation and being subjected to a religious environment of a faith to which they do not subscribe,” Luchenitser said after the ruling. “It is unconstitutional and wrong for a school district to subject students and families to religious messages as the price of attending graduation.”

Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU in Connecticut, said in a statement after Monday's ruling: "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. The Enfield Schools' plans to hold the ceremonies in a church created an unnecessary divisive atmosphere for what should be a positive and inclusive event for all students."

But Sekulow said the only divisiveness was caused by the ACLU. "The ACLU may be able to scare off some towns," he said, "but there are always towns and cities that are willing to take a stand. And when they do they can set a precedent for the entire nation."

McCarthy and the Center for Law and Justice have filed a motion to recuse, arguing that the judge's husband, David Schaefer, is a board member and officer with the Anti Defamation League, which sent a letter to the school last November demanding the school not use First Cathedral for graduation ceremonies. McCarthy says the judge was aware of that letter on May 24, before the hearings even began.

"Any reasonable person would see that as an appearance of impropriety," he said. "She should vacate the decision."