Virtual Voices

Commencement controversy in Connecticut

Religion

In my home state of Connecticut, there's been a controversy stirring in the small town of Enfield. There are two high schools there, and very few buildings in the area large enough to accommodate their graduation ceremonies.

First Cathedral in the nearby town of Bloomfield has been home for commencement ceremonies for Enfield High School and Enrico Fermi High School for the past several years. It's a large building, with plenty of parking. Adding to its attractiveness is the fact that the fee it charges the school district is lower than other options.

This year the school district learned that the ACLU had plans to file a lawsuit if First Cathedral was chosen again for the graduation site. The district researched other locations and listened to comments from the community. Ultimately, all things considered, the district decided to risk bullying from the ACLU and use First Cathedral again.

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This week, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall granted the ACLU's motion to block the school district's graduation ceremonies on June 23 and 24 from the church, saying it would violate the First Amendment. In her ruling, Judge Hall wrote that using the church would constitute an "endorsement" of religion. According to the Family Institute of Connecticut's website, that was defined by a previous case as "sending a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."

Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the FIC, who was called to testify in the case, believes the ruling is wrong. His argument, spelled out on the website, goes like this: "Put another way, the First Amendment requires that churches be treated equal to other organizations in the public square."

The plaintiffs' argument in this case is that holding the commencement ceremonies in a church would violate the constitutional ban on government establishment of a religion.

I'm trying to imagine whether this would be an issue if the graduation ceremonies had been booked at a nearby synagogue. Would the ACLU be worried about the government "endorsing" Judaism somehow? I doubt it. And if I were a graduating senior, would I feel like an "outsider" receiving my diploma in a temple? Absolutely not.

What is it about Christianity that worries the ACLU so much?

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports: "School officials in Connecticut have voted not to appeal a federal judge's ruling against plans to hold public high school graduations in a church."

Marcia Segelstein
Marcia Segelstein

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