Despite official separation of church and state at the federal level, religion seems to be constantly weaseling its way into local government in the United States. Recently, a federal judge ruled that two public high schools in the U.S. state of Connecticut cannot hold their graduation ceremonies at a local megachurch. The ruling has sparked debate over how far religious organizations can facilitate government-sponsored events, and whether states can defy federal constitutional guarantees. If anything seems clear, it is that the rights guaranteed by the federal constitution are in place to protect against the arbitrary and discriminatory legislation of local jurisdictions.
The megachurch in question, First Cathedral, is a non-denominational Christian organization which holds its worship services and other church activities inside a gigantic suburban-style structure surrounded by a vast parking lot. After several complaints over the decision to hold 2010 graduation ceremonies inside the church, three out of five schools elected to move their events to secular facilities, while the two remaining Enfield District schools decided to go ahead with plans to host the ceremonies inside the church. The conservative Christian legal group American Center for Law and Justice vowed to defend the church against further legal challenge, and this is exactly what happened when two students and three parents brought a challenge to court with the help of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. According to USA Today‘s Cathy Lynn Grossman, the Associated Press report that an agnostic student and their parent complained of being deprived of a “once in a lifetime” chance to celebrate graduation if the student skipped the ceremony or being “forced to submit to a religious environment that … will make me feel extremely uncomfortable and offended” if the student attended.
After visiting the church and examining it for overt religious symbolism, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall found the facility “overwrought with religious symbols” and stated it could be seen as “coercing students to enter a church and ‘support or participate in religion’ but can also be viewed as coercing the violation of one’s own religious beliefs“, finally ruling that public school ceremonies held at the church would violate the U.S. constitution since “[a] reasonable observer attending the 2010 Enfield graduations would perceive the message that Enfield endorsed the readily perceptible religious views of First Cathedral based upon the character of that forum which Enfield schools selected.” A lawyer with American Center for Law and Justice said he will appeal Judge Hall’s decision at New York’s 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But were students, parents, and Judge Hall blowing a possible constitutional violation out of proportion? As Grossman points out, the schools said the church’s religious symbolism will be covered, but this will prove to be a daunting task—not only does a giant Latin cross rise from the roof, but similar crosses adorn its windows, while the main entry features a fountain modeled after the purported tomb of Jesus Christ. Even the building itself is shaped like a dove. Moreover, Grossman adds, the church itself has explained that the very reason why it hosts secular events is to reach out in evangelism to non-believers. So it turns out not only that concealing religious symbolism will prove impractical, but that the church has a not-so-hidden proselytizing agenda. And, as Grossman suggests, it seems absurd to expect the church to cover up its symbols when its very purpose is to display its faith for others.
This conflict between religious agendas and constitutional freedoms has raised many questions about how far the separation of church and state applies. One reader comment on Grossman’s article argued that the federal constitution’s First Amendment establishment clause cannot stop local state governments from establishing an official religion; yet another comment pointed out that Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which was conceived with the original goal of preventing individual states from re-instating slavery, does in fact protect federal constitutional freedoms from the vagaries of local state legislation:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It seems clear, then, that local governments have no authority to circumvent the federal constitution with respect to the natural rights and freedoms guaranteed therein. These include freedom from state-sponsored religion. But when a public, government-run school district forces all of its students to attend a graduation ceremony at a religious facility, especially when religious symbols are explicit and the church’s evangelical agenda is made known, it unfairly imposes religious views on non-believing students and suggests, as Judge Hall argued, that it endorses such views. According to the 14th Amendment, Enfield School District has no authority to override the rights protected in the First Amendment.
Does this mean young, start-up churches should be barred from using public school facilities on Sunday mornings? Not necessarily. In such situations, public school students are not forced to attend religious services—these services take place when students are absent from school, hence religious themes are not being imposed on students. However, a close eye should be kept on such arrangements to ensure that such services do not bleed into daily school activities.
Whether Enfield School District succeeds in holding its 2010 graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral remains uncertain, but we at ULC Monastery blog will be sure to update our ministers on this important issue.