School Sued for Holding Graduation at Church
Four Florida high schools are holding their graduation exercises in a church, after a federal judge declined to issue an injunction, largely on procedural grounds.
A federal judge Wednesday gave four Brevard County public high schools the go-ahead to hold graduation ceremonies at a Christian church, but he chastised the school board for choosing a religious facility. U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell refused to stop the ceremonies at Calvary Chapel in Melbourne because the plaintiffs – a student, her Buddhist father and another parent who is an atheist – filed their case too late. Bayside High’s graduation is Thursday; the commencements for Eau Gallie, Melbourne and Palm Bay high schools are set for the two days afterward. “I don’t necessarily approve of the school board’s decision because it seems clear to me that a secular facility without these religious icons should have been chosen,” Presnell said from the bench after a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon.
School officials argued that there is nothing out of line with the venue. “This is a graduation ceremony; it’s not a religious ceremony,” said Sara Stern, spokeswoman for Brevard Public Schools. “We’re handling it as a purely secular purpose. Therefore, because there are no religious icons other than the cross in the back (of the interior), we feel that the facility is not unconstitutional.”
Although the graduations will go on as planned, Presnell’s decision did nothing to halt the lawsuit against the school. “The writing’s on the wall, to use a religious analogy, that the school board cannot pull this kind of stunt for commencement exercises in the future,” said Mark Tietig, the attorney who filed the suit.
If there is a secular purpose for doing this–for example, the school gymnasium is inadequate to accomodate the expected crowds–there’s nothing illegal about this. Indeed, the reverse is often true: schools rent their facilities out on Sundays for church services. Churches are used for all manner of civic activities, including things as fundamental as voting.