A Connecticut lawsuit to block public schools from holding graduation ceremonies at churches is moving forward, despite a decision by a school district in the case to move its ceremonies to school grounds.
Attorney David McGuire with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut said the families that brought the lawsuit against Enfield school district are open to settlement talks, but want a permanent injunction to keep future graduation ceremonies in secular locations.
The families sued the district over plans to hold two high school graduations June 23 and June 24 inside the 3,000-seat First Cathedral Baptist Church in nearby Bloomfield.
“Obviously, it would be just as problematic to hold graduations at First Cathedral next year as it would this year,” McGuire said.
U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall on Monday issued a temporary injunction that barred the ceremonies, pending a trial on the issues. Hall said holding the graduation inside the church could create the perception that Enfield endorsed the church’s religious views.
Vincent McCarthy, a lawyer representing the Enfield school district, said Friday that he doesn’t expect the case to be settled. He said he plans to seek a jury trial despite a vote Thursday night by Enfield’s school board against appealing the judge’s preliminary decision. The district plans to hold this year’s ceremonies on school grounds, instead.
Town officials said they wanted the graduations at the church, which has hosted a number of graduations in recent years, because of its cost, large indoor crowd capacity, and ample parking.
Several nearby school districts had changed their plans to hold graduation ceremonies at the megachurch after receiving letters in the fall from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State warning they’d sue.
McCarthy, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, said the legal fight now will focus on future graduations.
“In the executive session, I was asked by board members whether their vote would have any effect on the underlying case and I said ‘no it wouldn’t’ and that was important to them,” he said. “The issues that had been decided by a judge in this motion, we’re going to ask a jury to decide these facts in a trial and decide whether or not, under the facts of this case, the school endorsed religion.”
McCarthy also has filed a motion asking the judge to step aside from the case.
He said the judge has a conflict because her husband, David Schaefer, is a board member of the Connecticut chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. His name appears on the letterhead of a November 2009 letter from the ADL to the Enfield schools asking them not to hold their graduation at First Cathedral.
“She should never have taken this case to begin with,” McCarthy said.
Hall brought up the issue during oral arguments and declined to recuse herself. McGuire said the judge went out of her way to inform the lawyers of the issue, and “disclosed the facts and her conclusions to all parties in open court.”
“Anybody who has ever been married would know that spouses don’t always agree on political or social issues,” he said.
The lawyers said they expect the lawsuit will be heard and a final decision made before next year’s graduations.